Bob Corbett
Webster University
October, 1992

The question of liberty has been one of the central interests in my life and activities, and in my work as a philosopher. As a citizen it has motivated my political activity for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, and for life-long opposition to much of American Foreign Policy. As a parent it has motivated me to parent toward liberty for my children. As a philosopher it has energized my work, pushing me to try to better understand the concept of liberty and to learn how to implement it in various aspects of my life. Finally, in Haiti, it has conditioned my attitudes toward development theory and practice.

What does it mean to do "development" work in Haiti? Too often it means that wealthy humanitarian and religious groups come to provide advanced technical material development to those suffering material need. With such an aim material development itself is the primary, if not only, target, and the problems are primarily technical--how to get 300,000 healthy trees planted in a deforested zone, or how to grow more corn which local peasants can eat.


This standard view allows too much to go unanalyzed and unchallenged. It leaves too much as it was. Why is there material need at all? Occasionally the reason is natural, as when a hurricane or earthquake destroys some area, or when a long drought kills crops, or a natural resource runs out. But more often, material suffering is of human origin. Haitians suffer acute material need because other people have developed, organized, protected and furthered a social, political and economic system in which the many suffer and the few prosper. (Even drought conditions are often human created! In the oil producing nations it is human decision about the rates of taking oil from the earth which will, in large measure, determine the quality of life of future generations. Nature places limits, but humans make the key decisions.) Haiti is a clear example of a country where the overwhelming bulk of her misery is caused by conditions created by human beings, and inflicted on others.


It is PEOPLE TO PEOPLE'S position and strategy to take development of people as the primary aim of our development work, and not the development of the material base of the society. Put differently, the material project (e.g. improved water systems, reforestation) should be a means of developing people, and, to the greatest extent possible the projects should be created by and in the hands of the local people.

The material conditions in Haiti cannot be sufficiently changed by foreigners. The conditions of misery are too closely connected to the social, political and economic system of Haiti. Any hope for Haiti must come from Haitians themselves. To arrive at a point of genuine hope, the Haitian masses must be developed.


In Haiti the underclasses--the rural peasant and the city slum dwellers--have little control over their lives; little power. They are often illiterate or marginally literate, thus incapable of making use of new or different analyses, solutions, ideas or technologies. They are living in a non-democratic country and have little or no experience in working together in groups, thus depriving themselves of the power of unified group action. On the contrary, because of underdeveloped social, political and intellectual skills, they are reduced to a vicious radical individualism which pits them against those who suffer alongside them, rather than against those who oppress them.

Material aid projects which do not come from local people and which are not under the control of competent local people breed a dependency--dependency on the wealth, organization, creativity, technical know how and good will of the developing agencies. If that connection is severed the people often revert to the prior state of deprivation--actually being worse off because of raised expectations. Even if the developer stays and works assiduously toward improvements, the undeveloped local people often act contrary to their own material interests and damage or destroy the development project. For example, it is not at all unusual to see underdeveloped Haitians who are given some health care, but not health training, to be continuing unsanitary practices for which the clinics are providing an unending series of curative medicines, but not offering preventive instruction to the local people.

The people must be developed. They need the intellectual skills to understand who they are, what their situation is and what their options are. They need the intellectual skills and practical knowledge to carry on their own development--even though they may continue to need external capitalization, tools, and expert advice or advanced technical assistance.

More importantly, they need to learn the democratic skills of working together in community to advance and protect their own interests. They need to develop a democratic consciousness--that is, a consciousness which recognizes its own innate value as a human being; a consciousness which recognizes the legitimate rights of others; a consciousness informed enough about the structures of the society to know how to struggle for justice and fairness. Further, they need the will to develop and employ these skills, competencies and concepts to everyday life.

Democracy is much more than voting and politics. It does entail free elections and human rights. But democracy is a way of being in the world, a freedom to and responsibility for just communal living. It takes freedom from oppression, but it also takes skill and attitudes that encourage one to participate.

If such persons can be developed, and aided materially, they not only have a better chance to immediately improve their material situation through the development plan, but they have an excellent long-term chance to participate in the reforming of their larger social, political and economic situation, and, at the same time, they grow to higher levels of participation in human affairs.


There is a radical difference between one who works to develop people to be free and independent and one who develops for control. Parenting is a fascinating example of this distinction. Sometimes parents develop for control, particularly among very young children. The parents would argue that the child is incapable of freedom and might make damaging choices. Often they will further argue that they have certain values which they are obliged to give to their children, even if it takes force. At other times parents develop toward independence. In my experience few parents parent relentlessly for independence. Even generally liberating parents tend to feel some obligations to pass on specific values and/or behaviors to their children. What distinguishes the liberating from the controlling parent is the relative degree of liberty or control they struggle to give their children.

However, working with Haitian people is quite different, or at least on my view, should be, than working with one's own children. Haitians have the right to full independence, and, if liberated from intellectual and political limits, can choose their own futures.

Thus our task is to provide development projects which not only improve the material condition, but which help Haitian people develop the skills and attitudes which make for independent people. We'd like to develop ourselves out of business!


Very few development projects in Haiti operate as described above. There are many reasons why, including the fact that many so-called development projects are cynically designed to continue controlling people and purposely, with care, cultivate the dependency I describe. Others are overtly paternalistic, and do not believe the local populations capable of genuine liberty. Such projects adopt the stance of the controlling parent, even feeling the moral obligation to insure proper values or behaviors in the recipients of "development" aid. I will not deal with those two groups in this essay. The first group, usually governments and foreign investors may falsely represent their aims, but they are rather easy to see through, or at least are already widely criticized. The second group usually does not display any confusion between its theory and practice. They know what they are doing and self-consciously control people for their own ends. Many religious developers do this in Haiti--developing toward conversion to their preferred religious ideals.

Here I'm more concerned with a third huge category of development projects --namely those which flow from a sincere desire to improve the material base of the suffering population, and which are not wedded in theory to a doctrine of either control or cultural, moral superiority. To these groups I maintain that a strategy of developer-centered development is less efficient in the LONG-TERM than liberation-centered development. However, I'll grant that developer-centered development is usually more efficient in the short-term. In fact, direct aid, mere handouts, is even more effective in the even shorter-term.

By a developer-centered model of development I mean a project to improve some local material situation--crop development, basic infrastructure like health care, schools or roads, or job opportunities etc. But, the project is, in the extreme case, developer chosen, developer designed, developer controlled and administered and even features outside people as the key workers; especially administrators or technologists, and finally, usually involves a technology which is uncommon or even novel to the local community.

I will regard as developer-centered, any project which is not so fully or completely developer-centered if it has the main lines of this model and few or none of the central qualities of a liberation-centered development project.

A liberation-centered development project is one which aims at developing the local people's abilities, skills and consciousness to control their own futures.

I believe such developer-centered models of development are less effective in the long-term for at least five reasons.

  1. A developer-centered project requires that the developers be around to run, administer and replenish the work. When grant moneys end, or the political situation makes it difficult for outside developers and they cease to have their outside support, the local undeveloped people are often intellectually, practically and economically incapable of continuing the work. In such cases, and their numbers are countless, the beneficial results of development grind to a halt as effectively as if a silver mine had run dry.
  2. When the local populace is left undeveloped, it often acts in counter-productive ways to the path of development from ignorance. It is not unusual for outside "developers" to open a clinic in some poor region, and to see local people continue disastrous health care practices such as drinking polluted water or even polluting the water source by defecating too close to it, as traditional practice might have dictated.
  3. There is often a great contrast between the short-term interest of the individual undeveloped local person and the longer-term interest at which the developer is aiming. In Haiti one often has developers plant much needed trees in barren regions, while leaving local peasants essentially undeveloped. (Preaching the needs and virtues of reforestation is NOT developing people!) Such development-centered managers then moan a sad tale when the local share cropping peasant, who doesn't even own the land, satisfies his immediate food crisis by allowing his goats to eat the seedlings. Given the radical solitary struggle for survival in the culture of the undeveloped peasant, such behavior is certainly in his own short-term interest and disastrous to the longer-term interests of the developer and the region as a whole. The question of whether such behavior is against the longer-term interests of the peasant himself is unclear, and is intimately related to larger questions of the social, political and economic system. It is certainly conceivable that given the continuance of current oppressive land ownership practices, such behavior might even be in the individual peasant's long-term interests. His tenure in the land is very precarious. He may not be there to benefit from the mature trees, 6 to 8 years later. But, in the meantime his own goats will have had some advantage in the struggle for survival.

    Perhaps an even more powerful example are the charcoal workers who cut and incinerate Haiti's few remaining trees. Looked at from the perspective of Haiti as a whole, such practices are disastrous. But, looked at from within the ACTUAL alternatives which the charcoal cutters and sellers have, it is certainly in their own short-term interests, and, in fact if they don't do it they may well not have any long-term future to think about.

  4. Local undeveloped people have often internalized the oppressors' world view--namely, a self centered competition, a might makes right universe. The oppressors NEVER talk that way in public, but the oppressed learn this world view from actions and hard life experiences. Further, part of what is definitional of their very underdevelopment, is they've come to ascent to the oppressors' power.

    They feel powerless, incapable and often even unworthy. But, they dream of power. They dream not of liberating themselves and their suffering brothers and sisters, rather, their aspirations, the consciousness in which they've been formed--is to become oppressors. Men oppress their women. Families oppress their children, common poor folk oppress the even poorer folk in the pecking order of survival.

    Developer-centered developers not only leave these structures fully untouched, they often exacerbate them by bringing some material benefits for which the poor struggle, willingly oppressing one another in the process.

    Without the development of a new consciousness, a new person, a non-oppressor person, the long-term development is most unlikely to occur.

  5. Lastly, when developer-centered benefits accrue to a people whose fundamental local consciousness remains untouched, there is a general tendency for the benefits of development to be usurped by the local power elite. Thus one often sees water projects intended to bring water to local farmers, fall under control of the local land powers, with the simple peasant either totally squeezed out or paying fees for water use which the developers intended to be free--thus insuring the long-term continuance of the basic misery.


Development work in Haiti is extremely difficult in all situations. Liberation-centered development is triply difficult. First, one faces all the same problems that the developer-centered developer faces. Additionally, one faces two other categories of extreme difficulty, and at times, even danger. These are the difficulties of developing people, and the problem of resistance from the power elite.


Developing people toward both personal liberty and a social ethic or social vision is a task of exceptional difficulty, at times it seems simply impossible.

In our work in PEOPLE TO PEOPLE we attempt to do liberating people development in two very different ways:

First, development by allowing people to learn by doing. Second, direct formation (education) of people's skills and consciousness.


In developing people through material aid projects, we begin with the community's desire for improvement. We think it is best to avoid working with individuals. Rather, we prefer to work through established community organizations. Often a local charismatic leader will encourage the community to want improvement, or even spearhead such improvements him or herself. However, this model has nearly all the draw-backs of developer-centered aid--it leaves the masses of people undeveloped and creates dependencies on the charismatic leader. Liberating communal development comes best through democratic involvement of all.

We try to find communities which have their own projects that they want done. The primary reason for this is psychological. The local population FEELS its needs acutely. Their misery and suffering move them to believe that their life could be improved if only-- if only they had a local water source, or if only they could raise cattle to supplement meager protein sources; if only they could increase food supply with a communal garden, etc. Consequently, if they get the chance to realize their own dreams, they tend to approach the project with more dedication and motivation.

Some of you who support PEOPLE TO PEOPLE might think us ungrateful when you suggest a project. Several people have felt this. They telephone or write us with ideas for developing Haiti. Many of the ideas are exiting ones, ideas which might well work in Haiti. But, we seldom follow through on any of them. Nonetheless, we welcome them. However, in keeping with our thrust on projects generated by Haitians, what we do is file them, keeping notes on them. Then, if a Haitian group wants to do a project in this area we make the information available to it. But, since we are primarily there to develop people who can carry on their own development, and since we believe that controlling their own projects is an important part of this growth, we do not ourselves introduce new projects to Haiti.

Development agencies don't need to generate ideas. The local people have them, they just don't have the possibility of realizing them. Typically local communities do not have the material resources to carry out even a small development project, thus outside aid is needed. The people should FIND the developers rather than developers creating ideas for strangers and going out to find recipients. A liberating development agency only need let it be known widely what sorts of development work it supports. Communities will seek the development agency out. Our own experience is that we receive dozens of requests for each one we can afford to undertake. I think that regardless of size most development agencies would find themselves in this situation. If given the slightest encouragement the people will come to the developers.

There is one difficulty that cannot be avoided. We do choose the projects to be supported. In doing so, we exercise our power in deciding what will and what won't be tried by the groups with whom we work. Our decisions are not made randomly. We pick projects which we think have a good chance of succeeding, projects which have a good chance of developing the local community organization in leadership skills and projects which we think are good for Haiti. In this way we do impose some of our values on the Haitians. But, mainly, and certainly more than most development groups, we try to stimulate free and independent Haitian people.

We must choose the project, but we try to test our choices. We always start small. We'll select a project the local group wants, but one where PEOPLE TO PEOPLE'S risk is minimal. If the project goes well (in BOTH senses--people development and material development) then we'll try to offer them a larger project--again, one of their own choosing, not ours.

While the primary aim is people development, the secondary aim, the material development itself, is a genuine aim too. Further, most of you donors give for material development, not merely or even primarily for people development, so on our side we need to provide successful projects or our sources of funding will dry up. In the past we haven't articulated this larger aim of ours. This was not to hide anything from you the donors, but we hadn't worked it out all that clearly. We've been learning as we go, and this is where we are at this point. Our direction has been steady, but slow. We are where we want to be and we intend to continue in this direction. We're happy that we are now able to articulate this more clearly to YOU, our donors, our life blood!

Once a project idea has been accepted, we put conditions on the community in democratic process, to draw up written plans with a budget and specific terminal outcomes (e.g. a school will be finished, a public well will be functioning, or 100 cattle will be commonly held.)

Often this document will have to be re-written and/or re-conceived many times. Even once it is acceptable we EXPECT the project will not really work perfectly in that manner. Recall, the project itself is a learning tool. The community has likely never written a budget before, nor will the people have had much experience in administration.

However, once an agreed-upon contract has been achieved, we turn over the aid and get out of the way! Typically two categories of errors are made:

  1. They ask for too much money in order to build a cushion (for both noble and not so noble purposes).
  2. But, more often, they underestimate the budget. We usually try to check the budget out with outside folks before agreeing to it. But, the more unsophisticated the group (therefore, the most in need of development), the more likely is it that errors will be made.


The material aid projects are a learning-by-doing process. However, we have found that once groups become involved, and motivated, they are often ready to grow at a quicker pace if they can directly study what they need to know. For this reason we have been developing formation programs, and want this to become a larger and larger part of our development aid in Haiti. At present we are involved in two sorts of formation programs on a very small scale. We want to enlarge these, and add two further formation programs within the next couple of years.


Haiti's peasant masses and urban poor do not live in a democratic society. They do not learn anything of democracy from participation in public life. This is not a part of Haiti society, history or culture. When people become group leaders they are used to the models of authority in the society. Haiti is a very hierarchical society. The power elite rules. The power elite are all men. (The one woman president of Haiti was a startling exception!) Force is a dominant form of rule. All of these models make it likely that those who emerge as village leaders will follow the same patterns. They expect to RULE the show. They tend to want to use force and intimidation, and they expect men to rule and women to follow.

This is not a very hopeful model for building a free and democratic society. Working with Brother Francklin Armand, founder of an all Haitian religious community, we have begun to offer group leadership formation programs for community leaders with whom PEOPLE TO PEOPLE have projects. We bring a small number of group leaders to Pandiassou, the village of The Little Brothers and Sisters of the Incarnation, just outside Hinche. They have a retreat center there. We also bring in knowledgeable Haitians who can teach group leadership skills, Haitian law and history, needed information in agriculture, forestry and animal care. The "students" live in at Pandiassou for two weeks in these formation programs, and are, we believe, advanced significantly in their ability to lead groups in ways that lean more toward democracy, fairness and openness.

We always invite two people from each community which is invited. On the follow up seminar we invite two more from the same community. In this fashion we will have at least 4 people from each community who have some formation in democratic group leadership skills. We are hoping that this will dull the tendency toward authoritarianism in the local communities.

Down the line a year or two, after the first sets of people have been formed, we hope to invite even more people from the community organizations--new officers or other active people, to join in the formation programs. Eventually we may bring people back for more formation and renewal.

A second area of formation work that we've begun on a small scale is the training of local health workers in preventive and basic health care. I've already written about some of this work with the health care workers from Gwo So. Presently, Dianne Wagner is training some people from Bellefontaine. We have visions of more extensive training. Haitian people have an aching need for trained local health care workers. American-style clinic/hospital/curative medicine is simply impossible for most poor Haitians. But, much can be done with preventative medicine and simpler procedures. Again, we believe this health care should come from the local people's desires and be done by local people. But, health care cannot be learned by doing, in the way we try with group leadership. Formation is necessary or health care work will not prosper.

We have in mind to do more extensive seminars and provide guided experience for the health care workers. This will be sort of a cross between the formation seminars for the group leaders, and the hands on training which Dianne provides.

The biggest draw back to both of these formation projects is that they cost so much. A 2 week seminar for about 15 people will cost in the neighborhood of $2500. If we are to do more formation work we will have to have a significant increase in donations.


Development projects like those described above are very difficult to realize. People development is more difficult than material development. It is more long-term, more complex and more expensive.

But there is a second obstacle, a very dangerous one for the Haitian people involved. There are powerful forces in the society which see liberating development as a threat, and indeed it is a threat. Earlier on I argued that underdevelopment and misery are seldom caused by nature, but rather by other people. But those other people usually enjoy wealth and power because of the underdevelopment and misery of the poor. They always gain significant advantage by it. Thus, a liberating development, one which develops the consciousness and skills of oppressed people, is a threat to the power structure. I think it's not necessary to make this point in detail. I need only allude to the constant stream of repression in third world nations as the power elite struggle to stem the tide of increasingly reform minded peasants. We can see a steady record of death squads, human rights violations, interventions by more powerful, but interested nations, often to subvert liberating development strategies.


Developers often attempt to maintain what they claim is a political neutrality. This is patently impossible. Development projects are thoroughly integrated into the local and national life. Development projects work in the interests of some groups, against the interests of others. Developers may choose to ignore these issues, but that does not make their work apolitical. Liberating development is consciously aware that it is not only engaged in material development. It knows that it is not merely a technical advancement. Rather, it is political and social to the core. Liberating developers nearly always embrace socio-political values which emphasize that the underclass is underclass precisely because it is oppressed. The liberation aimed at is as much a liberation from the helplessness of personal underdevelopment as it is the misery of material deprivation.

Developer centered developers often protest that they wish to remain aloof from politics. This is often part of the argument given for why they concentrate narrowly on technological and material development. It seems, on the short view, to be non-involved in the politics of the situation. But as I've argued above, development, depending on the type, makes it likely that larger social, political and economic changes will or will not succeed. One can enjoy the myth of non-involved development, but this view can only be maintained by not analyzing the larger framework of development activities.

However, the issue is much more acute for those wishing to do liberating development. Such development is consciously involved in helping people to develop the intellectual and material tools to radically alter their situations of being oppressed and underclass. As such liberating development is acutely political. Oppressive governments know this. They almost uniformly oppose liberating development as sowing dissension. In capitalists spheres such development is labeled as communist. In communist spheres such development is labeled as reactionary or counter-revolutionary. This name calling is a conditioned political tool to reject the right of people to decide their own futures, to be independent of controlling ideologies.


The liberating developer liberates. It is a process which has deep profound trust in human beings. It is a position that sees liberation as helping one achieve a set of intellectual and psychological skills, and of having the will to take control of one's own life. Liberation is not giving content, it does not give "the way". To give content is to oppress. It is the antithesis of trust. It is an alternative which denies the essential humanness and right to freedom of the other. The liberating developer, like a liberating parent, helps raise an undeveloped person to the skills and will allowing him or her to choose, then steps aside to let the free person choose his or her own world. It is the ultimate act of love.


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Bob Corbett