First Impressions

6 Feb

Before my trip to Haiti, I imagined myself making almost daily contributions to The Global Kiosk, either short- or medium-sized doses of observations, facts and maybe even some analysis. But the longer I spent there, the less easy the wrapping up of my days became. I could blame the shortage of electricity and the wonky laptops at the nearest cyber cafe, or even the debilitating heat and a fairly busy schedule.


But the truth is, the longer I spent in Port au Prince, the more complicated and massive the job of taking it all in seemed.

Take CR3, for example, the IDP camp I wrote about in my first (and only!) entry:  further research indicated that many people in it and other camps may not necessarily actually be homeless, as such. Many are, but others stake out spots in the hopes they may get a better home with tenure rights sometime in the future. Or else the few services they get in the camps are better — or at least no worse — than what they had before. (Only recently did I hear a story from a CBC journalist about searching for someone previously interviewed in one camp, and learning that not only was that person not there, but that the family had members living in various camps, in case something better came up in one or another, thus allowing all of them to move.)

Then there is the line that all of the traditional international NGOs I looked into are adhering to. They maintained that their development projects are designed with civil society and local organization actors. Yet if that were true — and had been since they began working in Haiti — then surely one would see some incremental results of better lives and some prosperity in pockets of the country. Only I couldn’t really say I did.

Rather, it is the picture of poverty, one at a level where living in a tent in dusty crowded camp is a legitimate housing option, that is overwhelming. That and the total lack of most essential services, including water — only about 20% of people have access to tap water, electricity — available for a few hours a day, usually in the middle of the night — and garbage collection — basically non-existent. Even street sweepers, of which there are many, can be seen tipping their wheelbarrows of refuse into the nearest stream or canal.

And so a person tends to empathize with a government that doesn’t do anything simply because it is obvious that anyone would wonder where to even begin, especially when there is no funding. Fix the water and sewage systems or the power lines? Pick up the trash or clear the rubble? Build schools, or houses? And if you do build those houses, who gets to move into them: people in camps or people in camps who really have nowhere else at all to go?

No one, moreover, wants to trust the Martelly government to do any of it. And considering how much money President Martelly has spent on new SUVs and travel per diems for himself and his enlarged retinue, how could anyone object? (His ‘solution’ for dealing with the people in the camps so far, for example, has to simply provide them rent money for a year — something that could have been done back in 2010. And only those encamped in public spaces qualify, not people on privately-owned land.)

Complain about the pernicious effect of food aid, which is basically dumping subsidized food from the U.S., Canada and Europe, and you will be told, well, Haiti doesn’t produce enough food to meet its needs. Suggest beefing up agricultural production and you’ll soon find that most Haitian peasant farmers don’t have enough land to produce a surplus. That means agrarian reform should be on the cards, but as one NGO country director told me, “This is a subject that is completely taboo.”

That’s why, for some, the idea of transforming CR3 into a humane housing complex is a fantasy. And it is also why my conversation last Tuesday, my final day in Haiti, with Camille Chalmers of the Platform for the Advocacy of Alternative Development felt refreshingly down-to-earth. We brought the discussion back to role of foreign aid in Haiti. And for Chalmers, its results have been “nettement negatif.”

“If you compare the growth of the volume of aid money with that of the country’s GDP,” he said, “you see very quickly that not only has it not made an important contribution to growth, but that it has had negative effects.”

In future posts, I will put up some interviews with many of the people I met there over the past two weeks. But something beyond those first impressions will definitely have to wait. After all, that is what research is all about.


2 Responses to “First Impressions”

  1. beccabailey February 9, 2012 at 8:44 am #

    I find when I am in Haiti, I go on the Haiti time. When you enter many Haitian homes the clock on the wall has stopped, that is how Haiti time is. Ones friend might say I will be there is an hour and it is three hours later, that is Haiti time. I find that plans I had before arrival fall victim to Haiti time.
    I have the problem of seeing to many stories to write about and being on overload with ideas so that when I start to write everything begins to blend and tanlge, only to leave me untangling the stories later. One story has so many threads, so many layers.

  2. deborahleesimmons February 12, 2012 at 10:24 am #

    Thanks as always for sharing your insights and analysis …. it’s great to hear that PAPDA is still going strong! I’ll look forward to your follow-up posts on the Haiti experience.

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