York graduate student debunks myths surrounding Haiti

Kidnapping, riots, mudslides and poverty – these keywords dominate media coverage of Haiti. York graduate student Leah Reesor is determined to challenge the negative stereotypes surrounding the Caribbean country and so she is spending this summer in Haiti as part of the fieldwork requirement for her master in development studies.

Left: Leah Reesor (left) with Jiliene Joseph, a cooperative leader in rural Haiti

“Canadian friends often ask me if I’m afraid to go to Haiti, or if it’s safe. I tell them that Haiti, particularly rural Haiti, has one of the lowest crime rates in the Caribbean,” says Reesor, and she should know. Reesor is no stranger to the Caribbean country. When she was a child, her family moved to a rural Haitian village for three years while her parents worked for a community development organization. That formative experience led to her fluency in Haitian Creole, and shaped her understanding of Haitian culture and politics. For the last two summers, Reesor has worked in Haiti as a grant writer for a development agency based in Waterloo, Ont. The connections and friendships she formed during past visits have helped make both her research and this summer’s experience possible. 

Reesor’s research focuses on the role of community-based development organizations in strengthening democracy in rural areas. She spent the first part of the summer examining a group of agricultural cooperatives in Haiti’s Chaîne de Matheux mountains. Currently, she is living in a small town in the Artibonite Valley, looking at the impact of a women’s organization and a peasant organization based in the region.

“I’ve found that organizations like farmers’ cooperatives and women’s associations are active in identifying issues in their communities and in taking action to address them," she says. “The impact of these groups is being felt in the political realm as well, as organizations mobilize to elect candidates who represent their interests.”

Above: Members of a cooperative during one of their meetings

In one area, Reesor encountered a women’s association that succeeded in having a former leader elected to local office. The result has been that issues particularly relevant to women, such as improvements to the local marketplace, have come to the forefront of the political agenda in the region.

“Every day I get to talk with women and men who are passionate about bringing change to their communities. It’s really exciting,” says Reesor.

Left: Haitian cooperative members work to prepare tree seedlings for planting

She admits that Haiti faces some serious obstacles, particularly with respect to the high level of environmental degradation and the conditions of extreme poverty in which many people live. However, she believes it is a mistake to dismiss Haiti as simply a failed state. “The country has a lot of challenges to face, but the capacity of people to organize themselves in their communities, and to work together to bring positive change should not be underestimated,” says Reesor.

Haiti is second only to Afghanistan in the amount of Canadian foreign aid that it receives. Reesor hopes that Canada can recognize the resources that exist in Haiti and use its foreign aid dollars to support the work that Haitians have already started.

Above: Tree planting workday organized by several grassroots organizations, a non-governmental organization and local officials 

As for that perception of Haiti being crime-ridden and chaotic? Reesor points to a 2007 article published by the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, which cites that Haiti’s murder rate is estimated at 11.5 per 100,000 people. In comparison, the murder rate in the neighbouring Dominican Republic is close to 27 per 100,000. 

Reesor’s research in Haiti has been supported financially through York funding opportunities including, a Canada Graduate Scholarship awarded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada and a York International Mobility Award that helped to offset the cost of her flight.