Listen and Learn: Field Notes from Haiti

On March 4, 2013 by Grad Forum

The mountains outside of Petit Drouin.

Back in October of 2012, Ron Bucca, a Dartmouth Graduate student and Army veteran, traveled to Haiti with a desire to listen and learn. A month later, Bucca came back with a simple conclusion about international aid efforts in the tiny country.

“We just need to listen. So many good resources go to waste because plans are made too far from the communities they’re intended to help.”

It might seem simplistic, but for a country facing so many challenges, simplicity can be a boon. Haiti has received an incredible amount of international aid money – over three billion dollars have poured in since the earthquake in 2010  – and yet it remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  For opponents of international relief, these statistics act as validation for pessimistic ideas like “over-dependence.” For Bucca, they suggest something else.

“It seems like the mainstream model for aid is really top-down. Theories are hatched in major institutions, researched in far-away med schools and labs, and polished in high-level meetings. Then they’re packaged for export to a place that doesn’t remotely resemble the places they were born in. Without input or feedback from the population that will use the items, things such as maintenance, practicality, or cultural nuances are ignored and make the aid ineffective.”

So, Bucca used $1,000 in personal and research funding to travel to the island nation this fall with a simple question.

“I just wanted to ask – ‘What do you need help with?’ and ‘How can we help?’”

Bucca worked with the Children’s Nutrition Program (CNP), a small non-profit based in Léogâne. Much of CNP’s staff is Haitian, and the group is committed to finding solutions with a “from Haitians, for Haitians” model.  CNP helped Bucca find a translator and locate two rural villages – areas that have been particularly passed over by relief efforts – where he might be able to find answers for his questions.

Bucca and his translator hiked into the mountains to Petit Drouin and Guiran. For most of the population in theses villages, Bucca was the first foreigner, or “blan,” they’d ever met. He gathered demographic information and tried to assess local feelings on relief efforts. He wanted to create a picture of the Haitian perception of international relief, so as to alert would-be change agents to some cultural obstacles they might face. He also wanted to see how rural Haitians were interacting with the modern world.

“I was amazed. This far out, almost 85% percent of families owned or had direct access to a cellphone. But they had to walk hours to get any service.”

So, Bucca purchased and installed a portable cell phone amplifier in the village, at the home of the monitrice – a community health worker. As a result, the villagers will have increased access to medical information, and can get immediate answers to their medical questions. In addition, the reduction in travel time for the monitrice, will allow her to administer preventive medicine and monitor additional patients.  For a remote village hours away from the nearest hospital, this kind of instantaneous access may make a major difference in overall health and wellbeing.

After completing work in the first two villages, Bucca left the mountains and headed to Petit Harpon, a slightly less remote village closer to the center of Léogâne. Again, Bucca sat with villagers to see what they thought would help them break out of cyclical poverty and limited opportunity. He realized they had access to the Internet, but lacked the hardware or computer skills to utilize it.

“They recognized that they didn’t have the chance to learn any modern skills. They felt left out – the children would be stuck subsistence farming, because they lacked these skills and the resources required to obtain them.”

So, Bucca found a computer teacher who could commute to the village school to teach the young people in Petit Harpon the computer skills that could get them a higher-paying job in the city. Computer fluency, Bucca notes, also carries with it a compounding potentiality. Social media sites may well allow a previously voiceless population to speak up and be heard – and to interact with relief agents and communicate their needs without an intermediary.

“A lot of people have reservations about relief. They don’t trust their government and they are wary of outsiders. Letting them in on the conversation might be a good way to change that.”

Now Bucca is back in Hanover, advocating for an aid model that pays close attention to the needs and wants of the effected populations. He presented his work at a poster session organized for the “Haiti and Dartmouth at the Crossroads” symposium last week.

The computer teacher is still traveling to Petit Harpon twice a week, instructing students in how to use Microsoft Office, how to conduct research on the Internet, and how to make use of various social media tools. Bucca is soliciting donations of computing equipment – computers, printers, batteries, software (especially copies of Microsoft Office), and webcams – from any person or department who might have equipment that’s no longer in use. Bucca can be reached through his Dartmouth email address –

“Every little bit helps,” he reminds us. “And it’s nice that we’re rendering a service that was asked for. This is what the people in Petit Harpon think will help them. I think that’s a good place to start.”


by Zach Williams 

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