It is difficult to grasp the scale of destruction, death and horror visited upon Haiti by the earthquake that shook the island country on January 12th. The estimated death toll–upwards of 200,000–is staggering; if the United States were to have a disaster with proportionate casualties, the loss of life would top 6 million.
Military and humanitarian support have poured into Haiti to rescue victims, care for and feed survivors, and devise how to resurrect a country acutely in need of development before the earthquake struck. The “global village” has shown exceptional generosity and compassion for this fragile land and its hard-hit population.
Governments and NGOs are now joining forces to help not just rebuild Haiti, but to help engender a new future for the troubled land. There is bold talk of a Marshall Plan for Haiti, which will replace its tattered and dysfunctional infrastructure with institutions and services that come closer to meeting the ordinary peoples’ needs.
Today, the Haiti earthquake, a disaster unprecedented in the western hemisphere, is already fading from the headlines and airwaves. The TV cameras and army of journalists are heading home. The networks and newspapers have deemed that the public’s appetite for this disaster is sated.
This partial eclipse in public attention will be mirrored eventually in diminishing material support for Haiti’s relief and reconstruction. Humanitarian organizations, NGOs and underdeveloped countries are all too familiar with “donor fatigue” and “evaporation”, the latter term referring to promised funds that arrive late, only in part, or not at all. Financial aid to poor nations can be diluted–or washed away–by government corruption, or it can sit in limbo, as governments often lack the administration or distribution network to provide aid where needed.
Certainly rebuilding Haiti will require money, and lots of it, together with expert guidance of all kinds. Many of the rebuilding programs will be hiring Haitians to do the work of clearing debris and constructing buildings–sturdier, safer and more sanitary–from the rubble left by the earthquake. It is vital that Haitians be involved at every level of rebuilding their country.
When it comes to helping Haiti, I have a small idea, that might be a big idea. In all the plans and proposals for Haiti I have read, one key catalyst for Haitian renewal is missing: seeds. Distributing vegetable and fruit seeds to Haitians can be a simple project, one that can be implemented quickly, easily and inexpensively. A Seeds for Haiti program can accomplish things that infusions of dollars and flotillas of experts cannot.
Seeds, of course, are not a cure-all for Haitians’ woes. What seeds can do is help families feed themselves, provide a vital source of nutrition and help bring in income. Haiti, like many other poor nations, has been hit hard by rising food prices. Malnutrition is rampant, evinced by the red-tinged hair of undernourished children. In a country where the average family income is $100 a year, a small garden plot might itself yield a hundred dollars worth of fresh, nutritious produce. As American gardeners will attest, the return on the investment in seeds is unsurpassable.
A seed relief program provides another key benefit. It gives Haitians a small measure of control over their own destinies. The distribution of seeds is less prone to donor fatigue and evaporation; seeds are far less likely to be pilfered than dollars. The seed program, once put in place, can carry on without significant government or NGO involvement.
Seeds have a strong track record when it comes to building and rebuilding societies. Civilization was born in gardens ten thousand years ago or so. The birth of agriculture helped settle families, engender communities and develop states and governments.
Our company has been involved in numerous seed relief programs around the world, including Haiti. We have participated in seed drops in other troubled countries including Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia. The seed drop in Rwanda, done together with CARE, followed the 1994 genocide. The largest vegetable seed relief shipment ever conducted, the Rwanda seed drop helped 1.7 million people.
David Burpee, the founder’s eldest son who led the company for a half-century, liked to quote a Chinese proverb: “If you want to be happy for an hour, get drunk. If you want to be happy for a weekend, get married. If you want to be happy for a whole week, kill your pig and eat it. But if you want to be happy all your life, become a gardener.”
Seeds, surely the ultimate symbol of renewal, offer a fresh opportunity to Haitians to help regrow their country themselves, from the ground up. And we’re ready to help.