When the Hands Are Many: Community Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti

By Gibson, Patrick | Caribbean Quarterly, December 2004 | Go to article overview

When the Hands Are Many: Community Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti


Gibson, Patrick, Caribbean Quarterly


Jenny M. Smith, When the Hands are Many: Community Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2001. 229 pages. $45.00 cloth, 17.95 Paper.

Context

As many Caribbeanists are aware, in much of Haiti hunger and persistent poverty is the norm. For its 8 million inhabitants, access to primary health care and basic education is extremely limited. Only 13 per cent of the population has access to potable water and there is only one physician for every 10,000 people. Illiteracy ranges from 60 to almost 90 per cent. Moreover, less than 15% of the population is unable to obtain even 75 percent of their daily caloric needs. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, ranking 150th out of 174 on the United Nations Human Development Index in 2000. Most observers have viewed Haitians, particularly Haitian peasants, as victims of failed post World War II development and democratization programs.

In her book, When the hands are Many: Community Organisation and Social Change in Rural Haiti, (hereafter, , Jenny M. Smith strongly rejects the portrayal by contemporary researchers of Haitian peasants as ". . . either counter progressive or irrelevant remnants of a backward traditional culture, remnants whose survival, while hitherto remarkable, is inevitably doomed by the pressures of contemporary economic, environmental, and social pressures." She objects to the popular characterization of Haitian peasants as an undifferentiated disempowcred socioeconomic class and offers another perspective. Smith traces the historical roots of contemporary peasant life and in doing so critically documents the peasantry's experiences with foreign development and democratization agendas. She "represents" the Haitian peasantry as teachers and guides with authoritative knowledge and practices that can contribute to sustainable, equitable and democratic development solutions.

Method

Jenny M. Smith explicitly avoids framing her study by traditional development theory or methodologies, preferring instead to ground her work in ethnographic discursive and organizational practices found in rural communities. When the Hands are Many is informed by her experiences as an NGO Co-ordinator in the North-eastern mountains of Haiti in the late 1980s and early 1990s and concentrated Ph.D. field research in 1995 and 1996. The book departs from common approaches in traditional social science research and to certain extent, development studies. Instead of a dialogue about grand social theory, in her work, "it is the Haitian peasants who are debating the meanings of social progress, development, democracy, and modernity. They are "doing theory".

The Power of Song, Community Organisation and Collective Action

Jenny Smith studied the "Chante Pwen" or "pointing song," which is used to communicate specific social, political and ideological messages, as well as civic organizations that provided agricultural labour exchange, mutual economic assistance, community development and political advocacy. As a result of this approach she found strategies and deep spiritual and cultural resources that have anchored the Haitian peasants' associational since plantation slavery. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she also discovered that Haitian peasants have a comprehensive array of shared convictions that call into question the dominant Western ideologies of social progress. Giving voice to these convictions, Smith advocates putting the poor and marginalized at the centre of development efforts and looking to the practices of the local citizenry instead of national and foreign politicians, experts and NGO elites to find answers to social, economic and political questions.

Chante Pwen

With the context of Haiti's history of foreign intervention and resistance, the book concentrates on the discursive and organizational life of the Haitian peasantry. Five chapters, which comprise approximately 70% of the text, detail the group dynamics of cooperative labour and community organization and the wide range of occasions for use of Chante Pwen-s. …

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