February 6, 2010
It has been nearly a month since Haiti was hit by the most destructive natural disaster in this small country's difficult, disaster-ridden history. The camera crews and reporters are gone now. No more clips of dead bodies lining the streets, miraculous rescues, or chaotic struggles to grab food from aid trucks. No more star-studded telethons singing us to tear-jerking states of generosity. No more experts being asked to predict how long it will be before large-scale violence erupts or a cholera epidemic occurs.
So now, of course, it is time to ask the considerably less enticing but critically important questions about Haiti's long-term problems, needs, and possibilities, and how we can contribute to positive long-term changes there. Because Haiti was in a dramatically distressed state well before the earthquake, perhaps it is to be expected that some analysts would speculate, as Bill Clinton did recently, that this earthquake—or rather, the aid resulting from it—may lead to the development of a Haiti that is more stable and prosperous than pre-1-12-01 Haiti.
I would urge us to be cautious about such knight-in-shining-armor presumptions. During the past several decades, Haiti has been the recipient of innumerable amounts and forms of aid. Dozens of governmental and inter-governmental agencies (many but not all based in the U.S.) and several thousand non-governmental groups have been “aiding” Haiti for many years. Hospitals, clinics, orphanages, feeding programs, well-drilling programs, sustainable agriculture programs, self-help craft programs, neonatal health programs, reforestation programs, literacy programs, . . . you name it, Haiti has had it. And with what results? Some individuals, families, and communities have benefitted greatly. But in general, the country has fared the worse for it.
The dramatic failure of aid to effectively and sustainably help Haiti should serve as a caution to all of us who care about this country and want to do something to respond to the needs of its population. If we are going to be of real help, it is imperative that we radically transform our approach to “aiding” Haiti and learn how to offer assistance that is more responsible and effective than much of the aid Haiti has receive during previous decades.
The first step in moving toward more responsible and effective forms of assistance is changing our perceptions of and attitudes toward Haiti. Typical perceptions and attitudes toward Haiti were clearly reflected in the post-earthquake news coverage. Where was the epicenter of the earthquake? Approximately 16 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, near the town of Leogane. But we might never know this from watching the coverage of the quake's destruction, as nearly every television and newspaper report about the quake came from Port-au-Prince and was focused only on Port-au-Prince. More tragically, assistance efforts seem to have been just as narrowly focused, with nearly all the rescue efforts and food distributions happening within the capital. I have received e-mails from people living many miles from the capital who report that their own towns and villages experienced devastating damages and a great deal of death and injury and yet have seen no sign of humanitarian relief teams.
This urban-focused response is very typical of foreign involvement in Haiti. Although the rural peasantry has constituted the vast majority of the country's population since the first days of the republic, Port-au-Prince has been the target of the vast majority of aid. This has played no small part in the rapid growth of its over-crowded, haphazardly constructed, and thus especially vulnerable neighborhoods. While this urban focus is somewhat understandable—it is much easier, after all, for most Westerners to work in a place with at least some access to electricity, phone service, running water, grocery stores, and an occasional night out on the town—it is a focus we must broaden if we are going to contribute to real, sustainable changes in Haiti.
Other perspectives and attitudes toward Haiti are even more troubling—and more threatening to real and sustainable change. Among those is our tendency to see Haitians as either victims in need of rescue or as potential agents of violence needing to be controlled. Again, these perspectives were strikingly evident in the coverage of the earthquake and its aftermath. We saw plenty of dramatic footage of Haitian infants, children, teens, and adults lying beneath rubble, agonizing on makeshift cots, or being saved by heroic foreign rescue teams. There have also been numerous reports on “mounting tensions” and “potential violence,” even thought no serious violence has occurred (a remarkable fact, given the conditions people have been dealing with). And of course, we're now familiar with reports on the UN and the US military “ensuring order and security” (so much so that medical personnel without security escorts have sometimes not being allowed to go to those who need their care). Yet how many reports have we seen on the thousands of brave Haitian women and men who have rescued and cared for victims and made sure the children of their dead neighbors get food and water? How much attention has been paid to the Haitian community leaders who have been keeping order in their own neighborhoods, villages, and towns? More importantly, how much attention will be paid to the insights and opinions of Haitian community leaders in the crafting of long-term reconstruction plans? Hopefully much more than has ever been paid before. For unless there is, the dream of “a better Haiti” will be short lived indeed.
Two Haitian proverbs readily come to mind in this situation: 1) “Gwò branch anwò a konnen l wè, men se ti boujonnen an ki wè pi byen” (“The big branch at the top of the tree thinks it sees all, but it's the little bud tossed around by the wind that has the best view”); and 2) “Ti monben pa grandi anba gwo monben” (“A little monben tree cannot thrive under the shade of a big monben tree”). In order for post-earthquake Haiti to experience real and sustainable change, those of us who are privileged enough to contribute must learn to listen to those who know best what will and will not work—that is, Haitian community leaders both within the city and throughout the countryside. We must learn how nurture and not smother—how to work with Haitians as they seek to refine and implement their visions of what their country needs, and how to let go of our often-overwhelming tendency to do aid to them.
Needless to say, this is much easier to propose than to do. Fortunately, there are already some organizations out there doing it. And they are the ones that merit our most enthusiastic support. Among those are Fonkoze (the largest microfinancing institution in Haiti, the mission of which is to “provide the rural poor with the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty”); The Lambi Fund of Haiti (which seeks to “help strengthen civil society as a necessary foundation of democracy and development . . . [by supporting] community-based organizations that promote the social and economic empowerment of the Haitian people”); and Partners in Health, whose work combines providing quality health care with supporting community leadership and “fighting the poverty at the root of poor health.” You may find more information about these three organizations at http://www.fonkoze.org, http://www.lambifund.org, and http://www.pih.org.
Jennie Smith-Paríolá is a cultural anthropologist who spent several years living, working, and studying in rural Haiti. Her book, When the Hands are Many: Community Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti, was published by Cornell University Press in 2001.
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