What it takes for Haiti to get our attention

14 Jan


Injured Child in Port-au-Prince (Photo:American Red Cross)


As news of the devastation caused by the earthquake grabs our attention and empathy as much as the horrors of the southeast Asian tsunami did in 2006, a couple of images have been crossing my mind – along with one big wish.

Those images come from the second and last trip I took to Haiti, in 1986.  One was of  the sense of hope and desire for real change that seemed to have taken hold of Port-au-Prince with the running off of the Duvalier family. Their horrible, corrupt and violent regime finally at an end, the walls of the city were covered with graffiti emblemizing the popular sense of struggle. People were more relaxed and talkative in the tap-taps, the little truck buses that provided the city’s only public transport (in stark contrast to the ominous silence during my previous visit, when Baby Doc was still in power). For the first time since Papa Doc was elected, (a victory based in large part on his access to an antidote to Hawes Disease and the fact he was not from the nation’s mulatto elite) the country was preparing for “free-and-fair” elections.

But then I noticed something else that, for me, brought into question the entire notion of liberal democracy: the sight of a desperately poor woman in Cité Soleil sitting on the ground in her threadbare underwear, washing her only dress in a basin of soapy water. As she gave me a murderous glance, making me feel distinctly guilty for even observing her utter deprivation, I realized that no president would do anything to change the conditions of her life. He would run the tiny nation pretty much as before, seeking World Bank loans and obeying its dictates in curbing public spending and encouraging a market economy. It was probably the first moment that I understood that democracy in the capitalist system was wholly inadequate for the task of developing economic democracy.

Read a book like The Black Jacobins, however, and you’ll see that Haiti was not only the second republic in the new world, but the first black republic. As such it was attacked by both the British navy and Napoleon’s, and while unsuccessful, subsequently cut off from trade and loaded with debt. Its poverty and dictatorial governors have been ignored by neighbouring nations ever since.

Now tragedy may provide affluent counties and well-meaning citizens an opportunity to attempt to right that wrong. Recently I read an article in the New York Times about the surprisingly successful results of aid money going to the state of Tamil Nadu following the tsunami – about $1 billion, out of the “unprecedented” $12 billion donated to all the countries affected by that deadly tidal wave. According to Akash Kapur, almost 50,000 houses have been built along the coast of Tamil Nadu, replacing the mud huts that made up many fishing villages. They came with gas and electricity connections and, in an unusual step, were all legally placed in the names of women. “The result of titling these homes to women has transcended the economic gains of home ownership,” writes Kapur. “It has changed the very social fabric of the coast.”

Could something like this eventually happen in Haiti as well? Will roads be paved and schools built around the new houses? Will skills training, micro-loans, small-business opportunities and better farming techniques be offered along with the food aid? And in a country so heavily deforested that the border between it and the Dominican Republic is starkly visible from the air, will it be reforested, possibly with trees that provide food, fuel and other useful commodities?  Now that Haiti has captured the world’s attention, will we find inclusive and empowering ways to help its people escape the brutal poverty to which they have so long been accustomed? That’s what I’m hoping, even as the tragedy of nature deepens the greater tragedy of Haiti’s history. Change. A new road to something better: that’s my big wish.


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