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Campus Connection – Taking a TEAM Approach to Haiti's Development Challenges

team haiti

Haiti has been the focus of international development assistance for decades. Despite countless efforts, life is still tenuous for its 10.5 million citizens. A group of Virginia Tech faculty and students traveled to Haiti in August to test a development model that may help bring sustainable change to Haiti’s rural communities.

In Malawi, Virginia Tech’s TEAM Malawi provides a way for graduate students and faculty to do effective community development work in that African nation.  Based on the Malawi experience, TEAM Haiti was formed to assess whether the components of the TEAM approach – Technology, Education, Advocacy, and Medicine - can work in the Caribbean nation. 

The Center for International Research, Education, and Development (CIRED) within Outreach and International Affairs sponsored the group’s scoping mission.

“The model focuses on close collaboration among local partners, people in communities, and faculty and students from the TEAM disciplines said Van Crowder, CIRED executive director.   “The idea was to see if the model can help improve food security, nutrition, health and education for people in Haiti.”  

Faculty and students on the Haiti trip were:

·         Laura Zanotti, associate professor, Department of Political Science

·         Wade E. Thomason, professor, Crop, and Soil Environmental Sciences

·         Dr. Andy Muelenaer, associate professor, Virginia Tech Carillion School of Medicine

·         Kathy Hosig, associate professor, Population Health Sciences Department

·         Junior Beauvais, a master’s student,  Department of Agricultural, Leadership and Community Education.

·         Sara Simeunovic, a master’s student,  Department of Political Science.

Zanotti and Thomason led the mission. Beauvais, a Haitian, was instrumental in arranging meetings and logistics as well as helping the team understand the cultural landscape. He also enjoys local fame for an international award he won for setting up a seed bank to help farmers retrieve heirloom black bean seeds. Simeunovic works with Haiti Healthcare Partners (HHP) to provide primary care services to rural communities. 

The trip started in Port-au-Prince with a meeting with Paula Caldwell, Canadian Ambassador to Haiti.  She offered perspectives on the political and economic climate and provided contacts for potential collaboration.

Working with Virginia Tech’s long-term partners at the University of Fondwa, the group undertook a needs assessment. A community of approximately 10,000 people, Fondwa is a key food producer for Haiti. Like much of the country, it faces steep challenges. Pregnant women and infants die at some of the highest rates in the world. Food grows in abundance part of the year, but can’t always be properly stored and preserved to feed people when food is scarce. A highlight of the Fondwa visit was talking with farmers who have participated in the seed bank Beauvais established.  

In the community of Cherident, where Simeunovic and HHP work, the team visited a health clinic and met with midwives (matwons).  Most women in rural areas give birth at home and matwons often travel long distances, sometimes at night, to assist them.  Simeunovic emphasized that the matwons, who are all volunteers, need small stipends and training that integrates traditional skills with modern medicine so they can continue to provide vital services to communities.

One of the team’s most powerful encounters was not on their itinerary. As Thomason recalls, the team was “meeting with farmers at a technical school when the facilitator said, “There’s a church gathering and they want to meet with you.” When the team went to the nearby open-air church, the pastor stopped the service and invited them to have an impromptu meeting with the congregation. The group heard the parishioners’ concerns about the lack of proper health care, nutrition, and education for their children.

The team observed the need for the type of extension and outreach activities undertaken in the United States by land-grant universities like Virginia Tech, including training in agriculture, health and business management. The TEAM members believe they can form partnerships with the University of Fondwa and other groups to develop these types of programs.

Muelenaer found potential collaborations in many encounters. When he learned that transportation involved as much as two hours of travel by bike or motorcycle, and even longer by donkey, he immediately thought how Virginia Tech students’ creativity might be brought to bear. Collaborating with local health organizations, he believes they could use GIS data to map health resources and develop motorcycle- and bicycle-based ambulances.

Zanotti plans to work some her findings from the trip into her teaching, especially “to challenge my students to devise sustainable community-based development possibilities in the context of lack of governance and scarcity of resources.”

After returning to Blacksburg, the team spent much of the fall working with CIRED to develop projects based on their encounters in Haiti. These efforts are already showing results:

  • Beauvais is working to make the seed bank financially sustainable. Since the scoping mission, he returned to the Fondwa region and expanded the number of farmer groups using the bank from two to five. With the help of CIRED, he is also preparing a proposal for a fundraiser for the seed bank using Virginia Tech’s JUMP crowdfunding platform.
  • After hearing from the matwons that they needed backpacks, Muelenaer approached the industrial design department about having undergraduate design students create a prototype backpack. Students Nicole Norris and Laura Haggerty created a water-tight mobile birth attendant kit complete with a portable clean surface the matwons can use during home deliveries and compartments to easily organize and access their supplies. CIRED is working with them to further develop the prototype and distribute them in Haiti and beyond.
  • The CIRED team is working with Hosig to develop a capability statement to pursue funding opportunities for a project in Haiti focusing on the One Health concept.
  • Hosig and Zanotti, who sits on uFondwa's board of directors, traveled to Arlington to brief other members on the team's scoping mission and to discuss ways to align uFondwa's needs with Virginia Tech's capabilities. 
  • CIRED staff are also working with team members to identify other specific funding opportunities for future work in Haiti and to develop capability statements and other materials to pursue them.

The team declared their mission—to explore the feasibility of the TEAM model in rural Haiti—a success. “The TEAM philosophy fits in Haiti,” Muelenaer says. “What I saw reinforces the model itself and shows how, with some modifications, it can be used effectively in Haiti.”