Literacy in Haiti has been estimated at 52% but in rural areas the level of literacy is significantly lower. Imagine the fear and the sense of powerlessness when an ‘X’ is the only written means for you to identify yourself. Peasant farmers describe their inability to read like being blind or as being an animal with a rope tied around its neck. Illiterate women and men find themselves constantly on their guard, living in fear of being taken advantage of because of their lack of formal education. They are prone to superstition and succumb to constant humiliation of being duped in the market place, by the vodou priest or at the lotto. In community meetings, illiterate women and men hesitate to share their opinions, fearful of being humiliated for their lack of learning. In this environment, literate community elites assume a disproportionate amount of power over illiterate and semi-literate peasant farmers. Literacy is paramount to democracy; women and men must have the knowledge, confidence and skills to hold their leaders accountable.

The adult literacy program is regarded as the most innovative aspect of the FIDA/pcH Member Skills Development Pillar. In the FIDA/pcH experience, it is the transformational pillar of development that is so critical in assuring sustainability and long term change in rural Haiti.

Literacy is about teaching skills in reading and writing; moreover, it is about developing the confidence of men and women to reflect critically on their world and take action to transform it. In the same way, the cooperative model itself (the training of women and men to manage an organization, providing leadership training, training in record keeping and accounting) not only empowers women and men to take control of their lives, but enhances their self confidence as valuable, competent, contributing members of society.

Literacy training that extrapolates on the generative themes raised in Open Space sessions is offered for interested women and men. Small groups coordinated by local Cooperative Development Agents (ADEVKOs) and monitors, encourage women and men to work at developing a level of literacy that allows them to function more actively in their cooperatives and in society at large. Supervised by ADEVKOs, local literacy monitors facilitate short daily literacy sessions. Each level of the literacy program, Alfa I, Alfa II, and Post-Alfa takes nine months to complete.

Open Space forums serve as an incubator of transformation. Community meetings and literacy training are essential means toward enabling women and men to share, to foster confidence in their selves and trust among each other. These meetings provide the necessary forum to practice newfound and newly developed skills in communication and self-expression. Participatory community discussion sessions are held monthly in each cooperative. Addressing themes such fear, mistrust, cooperation, gender roles and the environment, these co-investigation sessions build trust and communication among the women and men of the cooperatives.

A visible impact of the transformational work of FIDA/pcH is evident in cooperatives’ general assembly meetings. More women and men are empowered to ask questions, insist on accountability, and demand transparency in the way their leaders manage the cooperative.

Aricia Fleurimond is a newly-literate woman living in the community of Fon Batis. After becoming a member of a local cooperative, Aricia faithfully attended the literacy classes for three years. Her confidence grew, and when she suspected that the president of her cooperative was mismanaging funds, she challenged him. It was an unthinkable act: a peasant woman challenging the most educated, powerful man in her cooperative. This emboldened act of exposure earned Aricia great respect from the other members. She went on to become a member of cooperative’s surveillance committee, holding the administration accountable for its financial management. This woman’s remarkable transformation from illiterate peasant farmer to cooperative leader dedicated to maintaining transparency and democracy in her cooperative is evidence of the immense power that literacy has to transform rural Haitian society.

“Founding itself upon love, humility and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence… Cooperation… can only be achieved through communication. Dialogue, as essential communication, must underlie any cooperation.”

Paolo Freire