Reading the Tees in Haiti
Before last week, I had been in Haiti twice, each time as a development officer working for USAID. Once I went to visit the agriculture development program, run at the time by my friend Vince, and another time to sort out a food aid problem. During both visits I saw a lot of Haiti, and each time marveled at how utterly desperate and intimidating the urban centers were, but how orderly and welcoming the countryside was. Years of political chaos, civil unrest, and natural disasters have left Haiti a relative anomaly in the western hemisphere…dirt poor and seemingly going nowhere. Donor countries like the US keep pouring money into Haiti, a country that for most of the time since Baby Doc Duvalier left in 1987 has been poorly governed and seemingly working hard to stay poor. Most Haitians were used to being poor even back during the Duvalier years, but life is even more difficult because general insecurity has grown in the absence of the oppressive control of the Duvaliers.
So in January of 2010, when a devastating 7.0 earthquake hit the island of Hispaniola, with special fury on the swarming city of Port au Prince, those who thought the situation couldn’t be worse for millions of Haitians in abject poverty were proven sadly wrong. In a country of over ten million people (over two million Haitians live outside of the country, mostly in the US and Dominican Republic), at least 300,000 homes were destroyed leaving over 1.5 million homeless. Port au Prince was shaken to the ground, the beautiful shining white presidential palace, the stately national cathedral,
and the historic national assembly, all in the center of town, reduced to Roman-like ruins. (Note: Chile’s earthquake that occurred just a few weeks after the Haiti quake was stronger (8.8), but the damage was so much greater in Haiti. I have reported on the Chile quake in several early postings on this blog, but resist making comparisons due to the stark differences in the conditions in the two countries.) In the first few months after the quake, frightened and searching for a place to stay with friends or family, at least 600,000 Haitians who inhabited the capital city left for the countryside and other cities. Hundreds of public and private relief agencies rushed into the country to fill the vacuum of an inoperative government that was incapable of responding to such a large tragedy. They set up at least ten huge tent cities inside of Port au Prince and some outside..
After a couple of months, as the people saw activity and opportunity begin to pick up in Port au Prince mainly due to the resources brought in by the relief agencies, many of the same refugees who had left Port au Prince came back into the city in search of food, medicines, water, shelter, and work that was more available in the capital than outside. And until now this trend has continued, with possibly as many as 2.5 million people in and around the city where it normally, before the quake and before the flood of “relief assistance”, had only 1.5 million inhabitants
Earlier, in 2004, the United Nations sent a peace keeping multinational force to Haiti to help control civil unrest. These forces have been playing an important role in post-earthquake Haiti, positive and negative, the latter highlighted by an outbreak of cholera apparently brought to Haiti and spread by one group of peacekeepers. But now, eight years after these forces arrived in Haiti, and two years after the quake, Haitians and many others believe the political situation now requires that these forces be withdrawn, or at least redeployed in less visible roles. On May 14, 2011, fair and open elections were held and a new President of Haiti installed. He had campaigned on a platform that included a categorical commitment to move the people still in temporary housing in the city to a new, better location. In fact, as many as 700,000 homeless have been settled on barren hillsides just outside of the city, beyond the international airport, but unfortunately this was carried out too spontaneously, before any services like roads, water, sewage removal and electricity could be arranged. And in a perverse example of human nature, people who had been living outside of Port au Prince, seeing a chance to obtain a better situation for themselves, apparently are moving temporarily into the city so they can qualify for the land and shelter being offered in the resettlement program. On top of this unplanned incentive to people to move into Port au Prince instead of out, the word on the “street” is that the northern part of Haiti is now due for a strong earthquake, so people who believe this are heading to Port au Prince, since that quake has already happened!
According to Benito, a very knowledgeable Haitian who accompanied me while I was in Haiti, the effects of the 2010 earthquake were so widespread there was some hope, generalized in the population, that the earthquake would provide a transformational wakeup call to Haitians. The Dominicans, who share the island with Haiti, were exceptionally good neighbors doing all they could to facilitate the delivery of relief supplies immediately after the quake and receiving a large number of Haitian refugees. At least two million Haitians move back and forth between Haiti and the Dominican Republic (a country of only Eight million), providing a source of cheap labor but also putting pressure on services in that country.
Many other countries, the entire world, really, came to Haiti’s rescue, so many that some thought they might finally move forward in recovery, together. Ex US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush joined together to lead a multi-donor effort to rebuild Haiti. The new president of Haiti put forward a clear challenge to the Haitian people: “Let’s do things differently”, an attractive proposal for a population of very discouraged and defeated people, but a people who had some reason to believe that things could begin to improve even from this post-earthquake rock bottom situation.
So, as I waited in the Miami international airport last Monday morning for my plane to Haiti, wondering about the week I was to spend looking at some development projects in the northern part of the country, a group of about 25 to 30 Americans dressed in bright yellow Tee shirts came into the waiting area. .
This evangelical army reminded me that for years non-profit philanthropic and religious missionary groups have pretty much provided the services to the Haitian people that in most other countries are provided by the government, keeping Haiti from slipping even deeper into extreme poverty. This group of yellow shirts was headed to Haiti for about a week to build a school and a health clinic. I have a feeling at least one of these groups is on every plane that flies from Miami to Haiti. I don’t know if this group built the clinic or the school, since I never saw any of them again while I was in Haiti. But as I travelled around Cap Haitien and between that northern city and Port au Prince, I saw signs of every relief, development, and humanitarian agency that exists running up and down Haiti’s terrible secondary roads in new and not-so-new jeeps, and eating in local restaurants catering to foreigners with considerably more money than most Haitians.
I was in Haiti to visit small farmers who are receiving technical assistance and training from US farmers and technicians under a USAID-funded program named “Farmer-to-Farmer”. All of these folks are extremely poor, but they are engaged in bee keeping for honey production, rabbit raising for food, and vegetable gardening to provide more nutritious meals for their families and communities. >>
It’s tempting to believe that with the obvious needs in Haiti, and all the good will being sent to Haiti by hundreds of individuals, agencies, and governments, that a well-meaning new president might begin to put Haiti on a track towards more stability and more development. In one of the last conversations I had with Benito before leaving Port au Prince, he admitted that he had been optimistic about Haiti, and that is why he was still living there with his family of four. With his education, skills and connections, he surely could find work outside of Haiti. However, he was beginning to have doubts that this time was going to be any different. The efforts of the President to get children back in school after the earthquake was laudable and his application of new taxes on business transactions are thought to be positive. But his excessive populist holiday gift giving while public employees go unpaid for weeks smacks too much of the past. He even gets the feeling some of the same people who ran Haiti in the 80s are being brought back into the government. Things may be falling apart again. If they are, it will be very hard to keep any educated Haitian in Haiti, and without the most educated Haitians, no Haitian institutions can be built and sustained, and any hope of progress will again be thwarted.
So, how do I come out on this one? The yellow, dark blue, regular blue, light blue, beige, and brown Tee shirts may have the right message for Haiti this time. How can all that love and optimism be wrong? But I can’t seem to get out of my mind the black shirt I saw while having breakfast the last day I was in Haiti. It was being worn by a young man carrying boxes of food from a truck to the restaurant storeroom. In blaring white letters, it said:
“Same Shirt, Different Day.”
Posted on February 5, 2012, in Santiago, Chile