Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A Few Thoughts on the Problem with Haiti

I just finished reading John Lee Anderson's letter from Haiti in the February 8 issue of The New Yorker, which features a Haitian woman named Nadia and her struggles to find food for her neighbors. It's a little weird that Anderson chooses to focus his piece on a Haitian who grew up in the States (and was deported back to Haiti a few times, following fairly serious run-ins with the law); it's sad that she talks so disparagingly about her neighbors and fellow Haitians (who she says are too lazy to help themselves); and it's shocking that people don't seem shocked by the depths of depravity to which the city has fallen (bodies bulldozed into mass graves, petty thieves summarily executed or left to die, shot and bleeding, as examples to other would-be looters).

When I visited Haiti several years ago for about ten days (while I was working for an international development organization with partners in Haiti) I was shocked at how smoothly things worked given the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, how humanely most people treated one another even under the most inhuman conditions, and how creative, hardworking, and hopeful people were even in the most hopeless situations. (Compare this to folks around these parts who from time to time shoot each other over disagreements in traffic jams or who riot when their favorite sports team wins.)

A friend of mine, a Haitian doctor, is in Haiti now, working for Partners in Health. In the first days after the quake, he and his colleagues were driving back and forth between their family homes in Port au Prince and the PIH hospitals where they worked. Wherever they went they saw Haitians helping one another – digging buried neighbors out of the rubble, providing makeshift medical care, finding food and water. He and his colleagues were distressed to hear that the news was focusing on stories of looters and brewing violence. Driving around in a truck with gringos at all hours of the day and night they saw very few incidents of violence here and there, but the vast majority of people they saw were helping their neighbors, not hurting one another.

It's almost like we need to distance ourselves from Haiti and from Haitians, to say they've failed because they're different from us in some crucial way, or are operating outside of the system we've set up to create prosperity and happiness and success. The reality is that they ARE a part of us and a crucial part of the system we've set up.

Haitians aren't poor because they live outside the system of international trade and international development. They're poor because they've been stuck on the wrong side of international development and international trade since the Haitian slaves had the temerity to rise up and demand their freedom 200+ years ago (with a lot of help from local elites who wanted to duplicate the worst aspects of the French slave society once the French were gone). They're poor because they've been ruled by despots and dictators and demagogues. They're poor because of a long history of U.S. and international occupations – including the ongoing occupation of Haiti by NGOs and aid organizations that have only succeeded in making matters worse for Haitians.

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