Thoughts from a final day in Haiti

Jonah’s thoughts from his scouting mission to Haiti. Pretty amazing stuff.

“It’s complicated.” That’s the long and short of the general consensus here in Haiti. I’ve heard this simple summation of Haiti’s tumultous history, bleak present and even murkier future from the most pessimistic SUV driving “blanc” all the way down to the most positive permaculture pushing rasta. Everyone it seems, is unsure of what Haiti is going to look like in ten years, let alone, one.

Take for example this scene: you’re jammed in the back of a retrofitted bus with just enough space to slide your shoulderblade off the glass window and against the surprisingly soft-feeling steel window frame. With five people in a row clearly designed for four, you can’t wait till the bus starts moving so fresh air can cool your skin and eliminate the consistent wafts of diesel smoke. Outside the bus, you see a canal of garbage, women washing every article of clothing their family likely owns, and children running naked in a game of tag that the nearby goat carcass is clearly losing. Once the bus begins moving, the bliss of fresh air is eventually interrupted by a woman ranting and raving about how the white man still enslaves Haiti, how she hates the French and how she thinks we shouldn’t be here. Most people chuckle at our expense, save for a young guy next to us who defends us with the “we are all people” line of thinking. A few minutes later, after everyone has cooled down, she asks where we are from and we proudly answer, “Canada!” Ashamed at the assumption that we are French, she turns around and mutters that Canada is one of the only countries that actually cares about Haiti. Score one for Canuckistan.

But I think the instructive point is that Haitians are actively having a dialogue about foreign intervention in their country. Whether on buses (which would never happen in Canada and I find very civically inspiring) or anywhere else, Haitians seem to want to just be left alone. Despite the obvious need for continued support, this will happen sooner than most people expect.

“Pullout” is the hushed bad word of the day. Once spoken only behind the gargantuan steel doors that keep all NGO compounds within their development bubble, the word on the street nowadays in the community is about exit strategy not long-term planning. Perhaps it is inevitable that a country historically subjected to colonial reparations for overthrowing the shackles of slavery, plagued by a natural distaster that rubbed salt in its collective wound and overrun by a litany of disaster relief NGOs often rubbing more salt in a wound they claim to be healing, only in such a tragic situation would a country like Haiti be cursed with a lack of long-term sustainable support.

As the organizer of dozens of development projects across 17 countries worldwide, I’ve traveled to some less than favourable places. However, Haiti is the only country ever described to me as “4th world.” While the presence of aid organizations in places like Ghana or Peru or Cambodia appears permanent, everyone knows the money in Haiti is drying up and people are starting to pack up their bags, ready for the next big tsunami or earthquake. Not everyone of course, but when you’re a disaster chaser, nothing quite gets your blood flowing like that flight into the belly of the beast. Thousands of seemingly normal Westerners have spent the last five years roaming from Banda Aceh to the Irrawady delta, from Pisco to Fukushima. They are deeply committed to the idea that humans should help other humans in their time of greatest need and very few of us even know who they are. You probably have heard of Bono or Craig Kielberger but you’ve definitely not met the real characters in this disaster world: the Israeli agribusiness consultant who tries to convince farmers that their spoiled crops are from bad fertilizer not bad voodoo spells from a neighbour; or the American psychotherapist who stumbled into an IDP camp wanting to help, started talking to some people and now manages almost 5,000 people, something big NGOs like Oxfam or MSF usually do; or the hairy Brit who is closing up shop in December, not because he doesn’t love and care about the future of Haiti, but because he can’t prepare for the next disaster and operate an international NGO from a “4th world” country. These are the true grassroots types who don’t have air-conditioning or chauffeurs but the passion to make a real difference in a place they generally have no connection to.

It now seems important to speak about some misconceptions I have had shattered after spending some time here:

1) The grassroots NGO community is a wonderfully small and incestuous world. Everyone we meet seems to suggest we meet someone who it turns out, knows some other people we have already met and have suggestions for other people to meet. And it generally turns out that all these people are fantastic, work incredibly hard and have committed themselves to learning Haitian Creole. I’ve been very impressed.

2) For the billions of dollars that have been donated to big NGOs however, there honestly doesn’t seem to be that much progress. Aid workers and Haitians alike echo this sentiment almost daily. The “cash for work” model means many Haitians are paid ridiculously high wages for translation and fixer services. When the pullout happens, will they be satisfied making $5 per day again? I don’t think so.

3) For a country overrun by NGOs, white people are barely a presence anywhere in the country. When I went downtown to see the Palais Nationale, David Berkal was the only white person I saw all day. Imagine that.

4) Most importantly, the UN, our favourite boys in blue, are not universally loved everywhere. Here in Haiti, the blue helmets symbolize the ousting of a democratically-elected president, daily quarrels in camps and a blue blur driving by dangerously fast on cramped roadways.

The biggest problem in my mind is that this country lacks the basic infrastructure that defines modern society: roads are cracked if they exist at all, water flows everywhere when it rains (case in point: the shockingly fast transmission of cholera in the last year) and electricity is inconsistent to put it euphemistically. While the environmentalist in me is happy, the pragmatist in me laments that Haiti is the lowest per capita consumer of electricity in the Western Hemisphere. If people don’t have lights at night, how are they supposed to compete in the international marketplace, let alone learn how to read and write? It should be no surprise then that just 1% of 8-year-olds can identify a sequence of three-letter words like dog, cat, fan, hat, etc.

And while these physical features do point to an inherant lack of structure in society, the most basic of tenets, that of a government in charge of organizing and improving a society, is scarily idle as well. The running joke is that Martelly may be president, but Bill Clinton runs Haiti. Sean Penn, Wyclef and Michelle Jean probably round out the top 5 list.

There is hope though. Every day, I meet more and more people with innovative and exciting ideas that are going to fundamentally change the way this country and many others in the developing world operate. Like the charcoal briquettes made from coconut husks which burn longer than traditional charcoal and reduce the smoke inhalation factor from the averge equivalent of 44 cigarettes smoked per day of cooking wood-based charcoal to 0; or the program to bring warring blocks from Cite Soleil, regarded as the most dangerous slum in Haiti, together through hip-hop music and breakdancing; or the future leaders program that will teach civic engagement and leadership to Haitian young professionals on track to become senators; or the open-source mapping project that allows people to bring GPS devices to their neighbourhoods and helps to plan and identify communities and their needs in a way the governmet has never even tried. All of these developments I have discovered in the past week. Imagine how much more we don’t know about.

So what is my prognostication for Haiti in 2021?

There is hope. There is fear. But in the end, it’s complicated.