#KonbitBibliyotek is a community crowdfunding campaign to build a library in Cite Soleil, which is Haiti’s largest ghetto. By combining Haitian traditions like konbit with the modern tools of social media, this initiative has spread like wildfire across Cite Soleil and beyond. It has already brought over 300 people together to raise $2400 and collect over 600 books. To find out the whole story of how it evolved, and why it is important, keep reading below:
If money could have fixed Haiti, it would have done so by now. If we think about the sheer number of dollars and euros and pounds and pesos spent in Haiti to save Haiti, then surely Haiti’s future is not tied to the budgets that are written for it all over the world. It can be hard to make sense of that tired question, “where does the money go?”
Unless we start to ask the question not about how much money is spent, but how, and by whom? In case you are unfamiliar with the status quo in Haiti, it goes like this: (primarily) well-intentioned people in other countries decide they do not like the state of poverty in Haiti (which is kind), and design projects based on what they believe to be best for Haitians (which is condescending but practical), then come to Haiti and find a community to work with (who will inevitably say yes to the program even if it isn’t their priority). The project will generally go well (with certain logistical issues), and then pictures will be taken, reports filed, and planes will be boarded. And then the project will fall apart, because it never belonged to the people it was supposed to help. While there are exceptions to this rule, I have seen this same dance play out countless times in my short life in Haiti. It is still the rule.
There is a wonderful quote from an indigenous grassroots worker from Ecuador in the book Time to Listen by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. It goes “This is how the verb ‘to participate’ is conjugated: I participate. You participate. They decide.”
Inspiration and konbit
So when a group of bright and eager young people from Cite Soleil, the neighborhood I grew up in in Haiti, came to me with an ideal for a library, I listened. In an area known for its gang violence and poverty, their group (Flamn-Art Club Haiti, or FACHAITI) wanted to a space for young intellectuals to come together and read, discuss, and teach younger children. It was their vision for their community. And while we discussed the idea, the conversation inevitably turned to one thing: money. A library would take money to build. Not a lot of money, but certainly more than these eager young people had in their pockets.
There were a few choices before us: the typical route would be to write up a proper tidy project in French or English and submit it to an NGO (likely international), and hope for funding. In the very slim chance that the request would be responded to favorably, the money would be spent, the library would be built, and even though the idea originated in the community, it would never belong to the community. It would belong to the young intellectuals and the donor, and not to the broader neighborhood. So I pushed them and asked: if this is truly something to serve the community, why don’t you ask the community?
Haiti has a tradition called Konbit – it used to be a system of cooperation in the countryside, where peasants would assemble to help one farmer each day, and then move on the next day to the next farmer, and so on until every farmer had the help of many hands on his field to help him accomplish tasks that would be impossible on his own. Konbit has now taken on a broader meaning in contemporary Haitian society: it means solidarity, participation, and reciprocity. It means that together, people can accomplish what they never could dream of on their own. I have studied Konbit for the past 7 years, and wrote my Master’s thesis on the way the principles of Konbit could be applied to modern issues in Haiti. And this is what I suggested to the young people of FACHaiti: this dream is too big for you to achieve it on your own. Start a Konbit.
I had previously had success in collecting hundreds of small donations for a magazine documenting positive stories from Cite Soleil. I gave the young people the cardboard box that we had used to go door to door, which still had a few hundred leftover gourdes. They took the box and, with great enthusiasm, began soliciting support from their neighbors, in the form of both money and books. It should be noted that Cite Soleil is one of the most economically marginalized areas of Haiti, which is itself the poorest country in the Caribbean. Almost no one has a formal job, and many families scrape by on less than $2 a day in the unstable informal market. A contribution of 10 gourdes (about 15 cents) is an incredible sacrifice for most families in Cite Soleil. And so it would take the collective effort of hundreds and hundreds of families to collectively build what none of us could build on our own.
Grassroots social media
In other places, there are online crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter. But to use these platforms, you need credit cards or a Paypal account, which would have excluded almost every family in Cite Soleil. That may have been the easiest road to raise funds for this campaign, but that’s not what we were looking for: we were looking instead for a road that everyone could walk together on. We had wanted to capture the transparency, energy, and momentum of these crowdfunding campaign, and combine it with our deep, rural Konbit roots.
And so, we developed an innovation with this community campaign that didn’t exist before. Every time a community member reached into their pocket to pull out a couple of gourdes for the library, we would take a selfie with that person and their contribution and post it on Facebook with the hashtag #konbitbibliyotek, adding a sentence about why they thought the library was important.
This filled several purposes:
1) It gave instant and equal recognition to every donor, no matter how big or small their contribution;
2) It was a mechanism of transparency, of showing everyone how much money was being raised every day (this is incredibly important in a place like Cite Soleil, where there is deep and strong skepticism of outside money, which often sparks conflicts);
3) It spread the word, and helped inspire other people to see themselves not just as aid recipients, but as donors. It gave in-person donations access to online visibility.
I was stunned to see the campaign take off with such energy – I had never seen so many ordinary people put their hands together in our previous collective efforts behind neighborhood cleanups and the community magazine. People across Cite Soleil began contributing what little they had, proudly holding up a few gourde notes to the camera and smiling. School children gave their lunch money. Mothers gave books that they had hustled to buy for their children in years past. Men gave the money they were about to spend on a cold drink to relieve them from the heat. People were not just giving their money: they were giving their love of their neighborhood, their support to these young people, and, most importantly, their consent for the project. A great number of the people who contributed would never use a library – they may have been illiterate. But they liked the idea of a community-built space, the idea of innovative and construction in an area known for destruction. And so their contribution came with something far more important: their blessings.
And their blessings also came with their vision. The young people from FACHAITI first thought of purchasing a small space in their neighborhood by the docks, but it became evident that this space now should belong to all neighborhoods in Cite Soleil. As the only space that is owned equally by everyone is Place Fierte, the public square in the heart of Cite Soleil, people began to advocate for building the library on this common space. This has engaged local authorities, including Cite Soleil’s mayors and deputy. Their contribution to the Konbit could be donating the land to build the library.
And others contributed in other creative ways: a group of artists and musicians created a song to raise awareness about the initiative, which was broadcast for free by our community radio station, Radio Boukman. A local filmmaker donated his time to create a music video for the song, and local journalists have used their words and platforms to spread the story far and wide.
Expanding the circle
And once other Haitians began to see people from Cite Soleil, a place they associated with crime and gangs, coming together for such a simple and positive idea, they wanted to be a part of this too. First, contributions came from other ghettos such as Belair and Martissant, who have long been building links of solidarity with Cite Soleil. Then, as the story spread, Haitians from across the country began to contribute. I was on a trip to hurricane-affected Jeremie, and I came across taxi drivers and passersby who heard me talking to someone about the project and begged me to take their contributions too. People in wealthier areas of Port au Prince searched out leaders in the ghetto of Cite Soleil in order to participate. One of Haiti’s biggest DJs, Gardy Girault, will give half of the proceeds from his next show. It even spread to Haitian Diaspora overseas, who saw the momentum building and were proud to be part of something positive back at home.
And then, people around the world asked to participate. Although the idea of this project was to build this project on the contributions and wishes of the people of Cite Soleil, the reality is that our community is economically depressed and could only go so far on its own. An older woman told me one day, “we have given as much as we can – now we must ask others to help us reach our destination.” And so it was that outsiders began to contribute, building on the solid foundations of local initiative and contributions instead of on the shaky foundation of good intentions and imported ideas. And people began to contribute from around the globe: America, Brazil, the UK, France, Slovenia, and the Dominican Republic.
As I write this, over 300 people have participated in this Konbit, and we have raised over $2300 and 600 books. It continues to build momentum, with contributions coming in every day. If and when this library is built, its value will not be in the number of books it holds or the number of chairs that are filled, but in the number of hands it took to build it. And each person who has contributed, whether it is 1 gourde or 100 dollars, 1 book or 1 song, will have their name written in the library to honor their part in this community Konbit.
Just as our efforts belong to everyone who contributed, our success will belong to all of Haiti. If we succeed, we will be demonstrating an inversion of the typical way development is done: building on a foundation of community vision, leadership, and resources, and gradually opening up space for allies and outsiders to contribute. If we build the future together, it belongs to all of us.
If you would like to find out how you can join the Konbit and participate, contact Robillard.firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Louino Robillard, translated into English by Sabina Robillard.
This is a great initiative! And a very inspiring story. May many more communities and community organizations take your lead.