Un Sejour En Ayiti: Lessons Learned from the Capstone Experience

Last week many of our students presented their Capstone projects to their advisers, clients and peers.  One of our 2nd Yr MPA- Development Practice and resident Admissions Program Assistant, Molly Powers shares her capstone experience…

I was elated last fall when I was selected to be one of nine people on a capstone project, poised to investigate land tenure issues and resolution strategies in the southern coast of Haiti with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Côte Sud Initiative (CSI). Now midway through the project and having just returned from our fieldwork trip to Haiti over spring break, I can give a little more insight to the capstone process from our perspective.

SIPA students don’t write a disseration or masters thesis to graduate- instead they participate in capstone projects or workshops. The capstone can make or break your second year spring. On the one hand, it can be a great opportunity to get hands-on experience working for a client on a real world setting, creating connections for future job opportunities and résumé-building skills. On the other, it also can eat up your time, as you feel you are working a full-time job on top of your other classes and commitments. And while some clients may be extremely demanding, others may be frustratingly absent, requiring a lot more guesswork on the part of the student group. For better or worse, catering to all sorts of clients provides important real-world skills.

Some capstone projects include domestic or international travel funded by the clients, while others can be done comfortably here in New York.  The EPD Capstone Workshops more reliably require travel outside the US, but this year more than 30 capstone project students traveled to South Sudan, Uganda, and Haiti among other places.

As an MPA in Development Practice student, a capstone project is not a graduation requirement for me as it is for most other SIPA concentrations. The MPA-DP equivalent to a capstone is the summer field placement, where students spend three months in the field, working with a selected organizations on targeted development projects. I so enjoyed my fieldwork in Uganda, however, that I was eager for more opportunities to tackle real world problems.

Our project aims to investigate the frequency, intensity, and reasons for land tenure conflict in Southern Haiti, examine what formal and informal institutions exist to address those conflicts, and understand what means individuals in rural communities actually use to resolve those conflicts. We also want to better understand what barriers may exist that prevent people accessing certain services, so that in our final report, we can recommend possible strategies for removing those barriers. This region is plagued by severe erosion caused by deforestation and annual hurricanes. While CSI is promoting agricultural improvements and tree-planting, they also want people understand people’s incentives for or against investing in land. Hence the land tenure investigation.

While I was initally concerned that nine people might be too many to work efficiently, we discovered that the amount of work we had to do to prepare for our week of travel and surveying over spring break was easier to tackle in pieces. We were able to divide and conquer the tasks of literature review, communicating with our client, seeking advice from academics around the country, working with our client in Haiti to organize field logistics, creation of a survey and analysis framework, budgeting, and applying for external funding.

Indeed, with only 10 days, as 8 people traveling in Haiti we were able to maximize our learning curve. Four members of our team focused on legal issues at the regional and national scale, carrying out interviews with land tenure experts, lawyers, notaries, judges, and surveyors in the southern city of Les Cayes and with NGOs and government organizations in Port-au-Prince. My four-person team focused on knowledge at the grassroots level, conducting interviews and focus groups with rural notaries, surveyors, justices, womens groups, farmers cooperatives, community leaders, and religious leaders in the villages of Port-à-Piment, Les Anglais, Tiberon, Chardonniers, and Coteaux.

We stayed in dormitories, hotels, and at the CSI guest house, and worked with two agro-forestry students from the American University of the Caribbean in Les Cayes. They were critical members of the team, helping us to set up meetings and translate interviews, and we were able to present our initial findings to a group of over 150 students at their school at the end of the week. We spent our days traveling and interviewing and our evenings translating and processing information into categories. The fact that we continued to enjoy eachother’s company after 10 days straight together is a testament to how great SIPA students are!

A big challenge for me was language. Reviving my rusty french took some effort, and giving presentations in another language was particularly difficult. It was also clear how important knowledge of the local creole would be if one were working on the ground in Haiti- the best stories we learned were those told in creole, recordings of which the AUC students helped us to translate in the evenings.

In one such telling story we heard during the week, a woman in Les Anglais sold her land rights to somone from another village in exchange for a sack of flour. She then proceeded to go up to the land and chop down all the trees on it, since they no longer belonged to her and she could make money from the charcoal from the wood. The sad reality in these communities is that the immediate promise of financial benefit often outweighs the uncertain gains from future investment (for economists out there, you know I’m talking about discount rates). We hope that the report we produce and present in late April will help shed light on some of these issues, and to help CSI as they move forward with their development work in the region.