Haiti: from solidarity to engagement

25 Jan

Two weeks after the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince and other areas, I am struck by the zeitgeist of solidarity that has taken hold of people around the world – if that’s not too much of an exaggeration. The other day I overheard a girl working at a shop that sells beads and jewelry supplies tell her co-workers that the owner, when informed that they had accumulated $100 in nickels for the plastic bags all stores in Toronto are legally bound to charge these days, told her to send it to Haiti. Much to their satisfaction. My local community centre is holding a bake sale to raise funds. Even the Korean-owned corner store where I buy milk and subway tokens has placed an empty litre pop bottle on the counter for donations, adorned with the same photo I uploaded on to my previous posting.

Meanwhile, millions of people are texting donations to all kinds of organizations, the Canadian Red Cross alone picking up something like $1 million in one day. (The girls at the jewelry store thought they’d send their windfall to World Vision – a great choice.)

There are exceptions of course. The New York Times carried an op-ed piece last week about some of them – like Pat Robertson and Bill O’Reilly. It’s curious how sometimes religious types who consider themselves morally superior end up exposing the fact that they are really nothing more than callous, smug windbags.

Yet aside from them, just about everyone, it seems, has been touched in some way by the terrible notion of poverty-stricken people in the poorest nation in the hemisphere losing what little they had – their homes, their workplaces, their possessions, worst of all, their family members. It is as if their plight has nudged us out of our complacent, consumption-driven, wasteful lives and trivial personal problems onto some other level of seeing the world as one where there is so much more going on. Where there things that need to change and we could all be somehow connected in bringing that change about. 

And this in spite of the largely inept and self-referential quality of the news coverage we’ve seen, in Canada, at least. Although sometimes the images themselves – I’m thinking of the ragged little boy with the up-stretched arms and extraordinary smile being pulled from rubble – take us so far beyond the parade of personalities that we are momentarily convinced of the visceral power of hope.

What needs to happen now is the search for ways to stay engaged, to not forget once the media does. Haiti probably doesn’t need the exploitative manufacturing jobs that op-ed piece I linked to suggests, as much as agricultural reform — on their terms – re-forestation initiatives, community empowerment, and an end to political meddling in their affairs. I’m wondering if there isn’t some way to get involved in supporting the Via Campesina branches in Haiti, for example, or in transferring the knowledge and self-reliance developed by the urban poor who have set up the Slum/Shack Dwellers International to Haitian slum dwellers.  The key to that would mean not only understanding that the poor have answers and solutions to the problem of poverty, but respecting the fact that they do. 

(A similar but I would say even better posting on this issue can be found on the site of a fellow wordpresser at haititales.wordpress.com. Check it out.)

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