Tag Archives: Haiti

Anniversary of a Bad Day

13 Jan


4293703325_3868444d23(Photo: Colin Crowley)

I’m having some renovations done to my house these days.

Walls and ceilings have been taken down, heating ducts rerouted, and old carpet pulled up. I’ve had to turn my office into a pantry, dining room and sitting room. There is rubble and dust everywhere, and while I know it’s ridiculous, I keep thinking about the Haiti earthquake as I step on pebble-sized chunks of plaster (or worse, once, a nail) and battle the endless dust.


Ridiculous because if it gives me a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to live in an environment where destruction has occurred , my circumstances are infinitely better than anything people had to deal with – and are still dealing with – after January 12, 2010.

Close to 60,000 homeless people woke up today to begin their seventh year in a tent in what is still a disaster zone. That alone is unbelievable in this day and age. Tens of thousands more live in utterly sub-standard housing, including the desert-scape of shacks outside of the Port au Prince called Canaan.

But everyone today woke up to a political situation that is distressingly same-old same-old. Hugely flawed elections continue to be the way a group of squabbling politicians divide up resources among themselves and their pals.

In eleven days, Haitians will go back to the polls, for the third time since August, to choose a new president. This final run-off is the last chapter in a sorry but repetitive tale of fraud, voter intimidation, and outside interference in the electoral process.

That horning in by outsiders has been taken care of by something the Core Group. Made up of representatives of some of Haiti’s biggest foreign assistance donors, it has, according to Prospere Charles of the 1804 Institute, “been pushing by all mean necessary to ensure the continuity of Haiti’s elections, no matter the flaws.”

So while the Provisional Electoral Council found that 47 per cent of the vote results it verified were questionable it is still going ahead with the January 24th vote with all the mechanisms of fraud in place. Despite their findings – and what many have simply observed – Council members seem to have been swayed by voices such as that of American ambassador Peter Mulrean, who said, “The world cannot wait for Haiti. There is no evidence of massive fraud in these elections.” After all, the country he represents put $30 million into making them happen.

What’s more, Mr. Charles summed up three big issues that neither aid nor history has resolved in Haiti. The first: “The abject failure of the international community to build and support effective public institutions after at least 30 years of unaccountable, astronomical spending and broken promises.” He also cited the complete inability of Haiti’s institutions to create a political system that is fair and free from local and foreign manipulations, as well the two-hundred year old “rift between the bourgeois elite and the mass poor in Haiti that is more pronounced than ever.”

To be honest, it is difficult to perceive much difference among or between Haiti’s presidential candidates. The whole ‘building back better’ theme failed to get through to them. They still couldn’t care less about making their nation better, or more about grasping power and money.

As I found while researching my newly published book, The Anatomy of Giving, there are many, many thousands of Haitians working hard to build a better nation, but they are being swamped by that “bourgeois elite”, the Core Group, and the deep trench of poverty in which most Haitians must try and survive.

My rubble will eventually be cleared away and my home rebuilt.

I wish I could say the same of Port-au-Prince, but that’s not on the cards – not while the same groups of unaccountable politicians continue to fight over their country’s resources and its future.

Meet Daniel Tillias

16 Apr



DSCF1057Daniel Tellias is a person I respect a lot. He  works with young people to counter gang violence and crime in his Port au Prince district, a special place called Cite Soleil.


Cite Soleil is special mostly for the wrong reasons. It is a slum where people with no money struggle to make a living; it houses many of the ill-paid factory workers who toil in Haiti’s garment industry; it’s right on the Bay of Gonâves so all of the trash from the upper parts of the city come flowing down into the St. George Canal from which it spills out onto the street and into people’s shacks; its neighbourhoods are divided by pointless, usually violent rivalry; and it is the go-to place for unscrupulous politicians for all stripes to buy gang support that makes them look like “Men of the People.”

But as Daniel says, it is also a place of resistance and struggle.

I first met Daniel two years ago, when I went to check out the organization he founded, the Community Centre for Peace Alternatives, or SAKALA, to use its Creole acronym. SAKALA had organized a soccer team, called Union, built a community centre, and established a community garden on a piece of landfill using old tires as planters.

This is what it looked like in 2012 ->6758004553_18fcc3c4a3








<- And this is what it looks like now.







Here are some excerpts from an interview I did with Daniel, who speaks fluent English, last month.

So, what has been happening in the past two years with SAKALA?

I would say that the last two years have been the most difficult because that is when the international community started to forget about Haiti. And a lot has changed for me because I have understood that it would never be the change we want to see, or the improvements we want to see, with the support of the international community. It has to be by Haitians and for Haitians.

I always use this motto that says ‘it’s not about them, it’s all about us.’ It’s us who let this country fall into this trap, into this condition, so it should be about us to have it rise again.

Why do you think the international support has been drying up?

Right after the earthquake, NGOs were mostly flirting with (local) organizations so that they can justify, I would say, money that they have received. Two years later, they don’t have this money anymore. Two years later, people don’t really see Haiti as a country that has been devastated by an earthquake. They just see Haiti as a failing state, so it goes back to Haitians to really make a difference.

You just got back from India, where you went as part of the masters program you are enrolled in with a U.S. organization called Future Generations. What did you get from that trip?

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, and I’m very grateful, it’s that many countries that really made a difference in their lives, they did it through their own effort.

I’m glad that I know about this and that is why I am really trying to build on this seed, trying to find in Haiti things that are working so that people will remember, again, that it’s about them to make a difference. So I would say that yes, a lot has changed. We know that we can longer depend on the aid promise, or on the international community, so we have to find simple ways to make things happen.

Do you see that as a positive thing?

When you keep receiving you think there’s always going to be a way to get something from someone. Until one day you knock at one door and you have a negative response, you start questioning yourself and saying, ‘hmm, maybe it’s not that easy. Maybe I have to find alternatives.’ When someone can have a chance to really reflect on this, that’s when I think it starts. To me that’s really positive, but we need to find people channeling this positiveness toward great effort. Instead of having people say, ‘oh, we should go look for more in NGOs. Or different NGOs, from a different country.’ They should start thinking about how would we find a way to deal with this on our own.

What about peace building here?

This is a constant challenge because while we do this, government people, business people, do the exact opposite thing, trying to pay gangs, trying to pay for demonstrations in the street and it’s really like, you try to do this with all your strength, while these people are trying the negative way and people tend to try to easiest way.

Cite Soleil is a meeting place, a place that when it rises the whole country feels it should follow, because it is a place of resistance, a place of struggle.

(But) when you have control over the head guy, even if there’s a big mess in the country, you can tell the guy, you know what? I will take care of you. But please don’t have Cité Soleil  rise and mess up everything.

So they want to keep on manipulating the people here? If they have a meeting or demonstration, they want these people to show up and make this person look popular?


It’s like they are the extras in his personal movie?

Exactly. It’s really bad because when you try to work with the guys and explain to them that we are not the enemy, that you should be working together so that we can get schools, we can get jobs, and the (politician) says, ‘you know what? I have $50,000 for you, but I need 1000 guys in the street.’ It’s like you don’t tell someone not to get $50,000.

But there have been some good changes over the past two yeas as well, right?

I am very positive about our efforts, and the kids still come from everywhere in Cité Soleil. People really respect them, and value them. People see them as the future. People see them as ambassadors. And the soccer team has even moved now to second division league. People are very excited about that.

So people talk about that, and not just about Cité Soleil as the most violent neighborhood, or the most trash neighborhood or just gangsters. They talk about these talented kids playing with a lot of fair play and a lot of happiness, and taking school and education more seriously. To me that’s good but we need to build on this to get more from it.

You were also on CNN last year!

Yeah, that was good. Coming from CNN, that has always talked about Cité Soleil for the violence and everything, it was definitely positive.  And this inspired people here, as well, to know that people really value what we are doing here.

So what are these trees that I didn’t see the last time I was here?

Those are moringa trees. Mostly they dry the leaves and use them as a food supplement. More and more people come to us and ask if they can have a couple seedlings that they can plant at home. People from all of the neighborhoods come and harvest the leaves which are really good in soup. They can come anytime they want but I really encourage them to plant their own tree.

We’ve spoken before about how international aid tends to encourage people to focus on their needs, instead of their abilities, because that is what their funding is for, and therefore fosters this situation where there is a kind of pay-off in being in need instead of organizing for systemic change.

This is the kind of vicious circle I would like to see broken, so people can start thinking they have the potential to do a lot more than what they’ve been doing so far. And that’s why I am so happy with this garden. Our wish is that we can send an example to the whole country, teach people that this is happening in Cité Soleil so it can happen everywhere. So why don’t you start your own garden? Why don’t you start eating Haiti? Why don’t you start eating what you grow? And to me this is a revolution that will make a huge difference.




An Apple for the Teacher

4 Apr


Meet Rea Dol

Meet Rea Dol

Rea Dol is an educator and founder of SOPUDEP, the Society for the Provenance of Economic Development of Petion Ville. She runs a school in Morne Lazaire where children attend Grades 1 to 11, supported in large part by a Canadian named Ryan Sawatsky. Here is my Q and A with her, carried out on a Saturday morning last month at the mobile health for women clinic where she was volunteering.


How did you get into education?

My Mom, who had nine children, never had the chance when she was a little kid to go to school. So she went to literacy school and eventually became a teacher herself. And I was so happy to see my Mom working as a teacher, even though the pay was really small. When a program started to be a volunteer, I was inspired by my Mom.

When the literacy program started, I was a volunteer, in my classroom there were 35 children. It was difficult because I had the special program for adults.

So I know that in Haiti there are so many NGOs working with children. I sent a letter to them saying, ‘I have 35 children in my class. Could you make maybe just a quick visit to see how those kids could go to school?’ Most didn’t give me any answer. One of the big NGOs said, ‘go into your community, do a survey to see if you find more children.’”

(She did that, and found many more families who could not afford to send their children to school but Plan International, the organization that had suggested she do this in the first place, was not interested in helping.)

But I’m not discouraged because I wanted to do something for the kids. So I went to the mayor of Petion Ville, and one day I was surprised. I saw a car with police, and it was the mayor. He said, oh, you’re doing a good job. If you find a place, I will give you authorization to start a school.’” That how I founded SOPUDEP.

(The place Rea found was a house belonging to a Tonton Macoute named Lionel Wooley who fled Haiti after the fall of Duvalier regime. She started her school 14 years ago with over 300 students, and now has 837. She is also building a new school at in Delmas that is almost ready to open.)


There are lots of private schools in Haiti, charging as much as $500 a year. Why is yours different from other privately-run schools?

One difference is when the kids come to my school it is like a family. So it’s not only they come to learn. We try to give a good education and training for life to the kids. Any problems the children have, they can come to us, even if it is boyfriend problems.

The parents who can afford to pay for their children, pay $10 a month, but 40 percent of the parents can’t afford to pay, and their kids come to school anyway. For example, this February, if I could have enough from the parents to pay two teachers, I would be so happy. Anyway the kids come to school because I have a partner in Canada who helps me pay the teachers.

After they finish high school we also try to find a way — because most kids in Haiti, when they finish high school, if their parents don’t have any way to send them to university, they are just sitting there doing nothing. But at SOPUDEP, we try with the friends we have outside, to help them go to university.

Why is that needed ?

The reason that is important in Haiti is because most of the parents they are like people who have given up. They don’t think about what will happen to their kids. If you want to go to school, go to school. If you want to study, study. If you want to do something, that’s your choice. So they don’t really care about their kids. Because in Haiti, the misery is a big big challenge. So its part of the job of the teachers at SOPUDEP to try and talk to the kids, even if it just for 15 minutes.

Education in Haiti has different faces, not only the kids come to learn to read, but you must have other accompaniment for the children because they need that.

Do you have to train your teachers to do that?

 It’s a problem when the teachers sometimes don’t accept to do that. They follow the ministry curriculum, they don’t have time. (So) you inspire the teacher to do that.

How do you do that?

Not only the teachers, all the staff , I try to convince them: when you work with children you must be happy every day! The kids make you happy. You have to inspire people, not tell them you must do this, you must do that. You must follow me. No!

(Now some her students are organizing to do volunteer work. They asked her for some advice on how to collect money, and she suggested they start saving whatever money they could, and keep it at the school. Now different classes are competing to try to set up their own programs. “It’s really amazing!” she said. She also gets them to do volunteer work with her. )

We have to change the culture. Its not outside people who are going to make that change for us, even if they are volunteers, even if they have ideas for change, even if they have all the money in the world. Nothing will change if I don’t have any will to change my country. We must start here. That’s why I need the children to start here. That’s why I need the teachers to start here. I need everybody to start here.


We started very small, I didn’t even US$10 in SOPUDEP bank account. But I have ideas and will and all the determination to create something for young people, for women. So now people know.

Tell me a bit about the education system in Haiti. I know that only about 20 per cent of Haitian children go to public schools that do not charge fees, that many do not attend school at all and that there are many schools nick-named borlettes, or lotteries, because parents have no idea if their child will come out with an education or not.

The system of education we have in Haiti is a mess. We have to change it. There are many schools they call borlette, where someone sees all the kids who don’t go to school, they maybe have a room, so they put a bench and call it a school. The government is supposed to inspect this school, but it doesn’t.

What about rural schools?

 Very few teachers in the rural schools are accredited or have the education to be a teacher. And if they work for a public school, a government school, they can go three months, six or ten, without getting paid. That’s why if today I can come, I will, but tomorrow, if I have something else to do, I just leave.

What about President Martelly’s new National Fund for Education?

 That’s another mess. In SOPUDEP, for example, they take 45 children in each grade. If you have more, they take 45, they don’t care about the rest. So for the 45 students they pay US $90 per year. Just now, this year, they gave the money from last year. And the bank takes off a fee as well.

I think what the government should do is take 45 children, or 90 children, off the street, new students, and give the money for them. Right now it’s not a new group of children who go to school for free. The way they make the program is not good. They are supposed to build more public schools, more high schools, and pay the teachers, not the people who have private schools, who already make a lot of money.

So private schools also have the right to this $90?


How optimistic are you that things can change in Haiti?

It will take time. But I believe Haiti can change. It is our responsibility to make this change, not the NGOs.



On a Road to Nowhere

24 Mar
Photo by Reed Weimer, courtesy Creative Commons

Photo by Reed Weimer, courtesy Creative Commons

Last week at about this same time, I was sitting in a car on the Route National, about a mile from the hotel I’d gone to for the weekend on the Cote des Arcadins and at least an hour and a half away from my destination, Port au Prince. Cars, trucks and buses sat likewise in front of us and many more in a long line behind. Motorcycles, laden with passengers and packages were managing to get through, but a continuous flow of people walked along the verge in both directions.

Across the highway, an empty truck had been parked, blocking our access. It was very hot, and some people got out of their vehicles to walk around, or sit on the wall beneath a tree that was actually shading its opposite side.
We were blocked by a protest. The ostensible reason for the protest and the barricades, of which there were several, was a rumour that the president of Haiti, Michel Martelly, had privatized the main public beach and sold it to his prime minister, Laurent Lamothe. In fact, it had been closed to clean up all the garbage on it.
But the facts didn’t matter here. Political opponents of Martelly like Senator Moyse Jean Charles, had taken them and a mass of discontented, disenfranchised young people to create transport havoc. At one point, an opening on the highway was quickly blocked again with piles of old tires. A friend of my driver’s godson came by on a motorcycle, moved them aside and waved us through.

It felt strange to feel good when the generally despised U.N. blue helmets and police showed up to dismantle the barricades, so I could finally make it back in time to finish up the work I needed to do in my final three days in Haiti. To be, for a change, on the side opposite the angry young people who got pissed off enough at my futile attempts to persuade them to let us through with a few badly aimed rocks and a lot of insults. Believe me. The irony of it all was not lost on me.
I got the fact that life for them is unconscionably difficult and unfair. I agreed that Martelly is a lousy president, corruption is everywhere and that whites like me should leave.
But I still needed to get to work. I didn’t want to spend all day sitting in a car stalled on the highway in the unrelenting heat.
And mostly I was disheartened by the pointlessness of this politically manipulated protest. The kids who came by yelling at us were probably not locals, but whipped up and driven in to annoy us travellers — as many impecunious bus and tap tap passengers as middle class car owners — by political opponents no less corrupt and devious than the folks in power.

Later I learned from Daniel Tellias, who works in Cite Soleil with groups of highly motivated slum dwellers, that one of the biggest obstacles to making life better and safer there are his country’s politicians. They pay major money to local leaders, whether gang related or not, to maintain their control. To show up when needed for a political rally or, like last Monday, to take over roads in fake protests.
The government and ruling class in general meanwhile don’t see any need to inform the poor of what they are doing. A sign on the beach saying that it was closed for a clean-up would have gone a long way to diminishing the angry crowds. But Haiti’s ruling class can’t usually be bothered to communicate. Their traditional methods of governance is just doing what they please. It might be something bad or it might be something useful, but the poor don’t need to know. They just need to accept what their betters have decided.

All sides of the country’s political spectrum are guilty of using this method. In one way or another, they’re in charge. And on the ground, the uninformed and un-consulted argue amongst themselves, leaving everybody on a road to nowhere, instead of a path towards change.

Book Review: The Idealist

13 Dec

9780385525817In April 2008 I visited a Millennium Village in Senegal called Potou with the idea of doing an article on what a bad idea the whole thing was.

Instead, it surprised me by turning out to very different from everything I had read about Jeffrey Sachs’ anti-poverty enterprise: well thought out, collaborative with local government and NGOs, and, in particular, based in large part on gathering community opinions on the project, or what its director, Omar Diouf, called “awareness raising.” Individual peasant farmers and heads of rural unions told me how sure they were that  by the end of the project’s five-year life span, they would be able to go it on their own. In fact, Mr. Diouf told me that what he had seen in Sachs’ other villages convinced him to greatly alter the MVP modus operandi.

Hence, no article.

But as soon as I got wind of Nina Munk’s book on Sachs and the MVPs, The Idealist, I was immediately curious. While she concentrates on two villages, one in Kenya, called Dertu and another in Uganda, called Ruhiira, the whole MVP set up was already getting a poor marks on the report cards of external evaluators and experts in development. Their main cavil was that Sachs’ claims of massive improvements in the quality of life for people in the poor African communities it had targeted were a) greatly inflated, b) impossible to prove, and c) could not necessarily be attributed to his project. There was no way, they said, to compare what would have happened in those villages had the MVP not come along by without looking at other similar villages that had not received this influx of aid.

And indeed, Ms. Munk’s research only supports their doubts. There were many times when I was reading this fascinating and well-paced book, shaking my head and thinking, ‘No. I can’t believe they did that.’ She describes, for example, the building of a livestock market in the village of Dertu and, in Ruhiira,  the switch from the usual cultivation of matoke bananas to corn and beans, heavily doused with chemical fertilizers — both Sachs’ idea.

The market no one asked for remained largely ignored by the pastoralist community of Dertu, even though their old market was a two-day walk away. And the bumper corn crops in Ruhiira found no buyers, being too far away from anyone who wanted to buy them. Other business ventures — like pineapples and cardamom — ran into similar brick walls.

What stands out in this book, and in the philosophy behind Sachs’ projects, is the way it simply drops its theories and advice into the desperately poor communities that have been chosen. People are persuaded to do things that make sense to Sachs and the experts working at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, only to find that they bring with them too many downsides. Millions of dollars are spent on improving health clinics, schools, and other collective infrastructure, but there is nothing to sustain them. Neither the Ugandan or Kenyan government was exactly eager to take on the expense of running them, and no one was seeing enough growth in revenue to start paying user fees. Education ministries didn’t provide text books, ill-paid teachers still went AWOL, no one cared to clean out the MVP-built latrines, and all the Sony-donated laptops disappeared.

At the same time, Ms. Munk points out, the influx of money in Dertu started attracting new residents to its arid confines, pastoralists who decided to “abandon their nomadic way of life and settle in and around (it).” Trash began to fill the ditches between people’s houses while the money the MVP local director gave  a newly formed “Garbage Committee” to cart it away somewhere vanished. The little local businesses, like Sahlan Bath Hussein’s tea shop, which  sprouted up were inundated by more competitive newcomers.

Yet what we are seeing here, I believe, is not poor people’s unwillingness to embrace progress and think about the collective, but rather a super re-tread of the whole foreign aid paradigm. “That predominant paradigm,” says Gord Cunningham, assistant director of the Coady Institute in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, “has been around fixing what’s wrong with communities. Identifying needs. And then, how we can help fix those deficits.” And while it does represent “a positive and well-meaning evolution from communities not getting much help at all and being completely exploited, the bottom line is that there have been a number of unintended consequences of this approach. One is that leaders in communities really start to look for what can come from outside, versus what they can do for themselves. They also get judged on how many resources they can bring in. That seems to be a measure of success rather than on how good the community becomes dealing with its own issues.”

Aside from the holistic approach identified by Mr. Diouf, the only thing that is new about the MVPs is the concerted push of resources, millions of donor dollars, thrown at one particular micro-region. Like the Millennium Development Goals, as the Earth Institute PR guy told me last year they were “trying to accomplish,” the idea is to demonstrate what the London-based Institute for Environment and Development’s Tom Biggs called the “effectiveness of aid, setting up the hypothetical framework that aid is hugely significant in the delivery of change, when it can only ever be a catalyst, or a significant factor in only a limited number of very poor countries.”

Some reviewers have taken issue with The Idealist for seemingly concluding that foreign aid never does any good, and underline Ms. Munk’s lack of knowledge of development. But I don’t see this so much as yet another cautionary tale about the inevitable pitfalls of the way so much foreign aid works. Sometimes, as Potou would seem to indicate, yes, it can work. It can work when there are lots of existing actors on the ground, a stable government that already provides some limited services — like electricity —  local organizations that are able to take advantage of the money and training, and above all, MVP staffers who, as Mr. Diouf said, “re-visited and reworked the concept to adapt it to our reality.” This was not the situation in either Kenya or Uganda — or Mali, where one project had to be shut down after a coup.

But it won’t work when there has been no process of placing the reins of change in the hands of the communities themselves — a long process, no doubt about it, that requires a lot of listening and pondering and cooperation — and when there is no consideration given to the sustainability, to real growth, however modest, in incomes, to at least some kind of serious buy-in on the part of local governments. Indeed, aside from  the Coady Institute, says Mr. Cunningham, “there are a lot of people who are trying a more strength-based, or asset-based, approach, that essentially recognizes the power of a community building assets rather than just relying on outside solutions.”

At the end of the book, as we read about new problems, slashed budgets, and staff fired out of frustration, Ms. Munk interviews “a member of Sachs’ inner circle in New York,” who says, “In hindsight it was like we were set up to fail. It’s not that Jeff’s ideas are wrong– he’s a big, inspiring thinker. It’s that the project’s ambition moved more quickly than capacity.”

But more likely, its problems can be laid at the door of outmoded ways of thinking about aid, one that merely talks the talk of community participation and management. As one complaint went — out of a list of 14 compiled by the owner of Dertu’s drugstore — “The project is supposed to be bottom top approached but it is vice versa.”

Even so, Sachs managed to get enough fresh funding to continue his Millennium Village Project for another five years.

Aside from Potou, however, this book also reminded me of Haiti, where Cantave Jean-Baptiste, the director of Partners in Local Development, would be happy to have even a tenth of what the Earth Institute can afford to spend. When he would go to a poor village, he says, “They ask, ‘what are you bringing us?’ And I say, ‘We’re not bringing anything. We have come to understand where you live what are your challenges and together we will see if there is some means of helping you with some of the obstacles.’”

Book Review: Fault Lines

15 Aug


The Haiti earthquake of 2010 has inspired rather a lot of books and articles describing  personal experiences of its extraordinarily destruction — or maybe it only appears that way to me as I do my own research on the effects of development aid and philanthropy in a nation that seems to lurch from one disaster to the next without much, if any, signs of progress.

Now author and activist Beverly Bell has added her voice to those of writers like Paul Farmer, Amy Wilentz, and Jonathan Katz with Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide.

But it would be a mistake to think she is simply giving us another version of the same horrific scenes and tragic stories of injury and loss.

There are verbal pictures of sidewalks replaced by “ground concrete that looked as if it had been through a blender, and rebar bent like bread-wrapper twist ties,” and anecdotes of people finally making it home only to find that their entire family was dead.  What makes Fault Lines unique is that it is the only book I have come across which grounds the earthquake and its aftermath in the points of view of people who have been largely missing from the rest, those of Haiti’s many, usually ignored, grassroots social movements.

It is thanks to Bell that we learn, for example, of the relief project set up by the Association  for the Promotion of Integrated Family Health in the Carrefour-Feuilles section of Port au Prince to provide daily meals to people who had lost everything in the earthquake. With some international support money, APROSIFA contacted 60 neighbourhood street vendors and paid them to purchase food from Haitian farmers and cook meals for ten to fifteen specific homeless families. Officially, the project provided food for approximately 4800 people every day. In fact, that number was far higher, she writes, “because when the women finished serving those they were responsible for, they kept dishing out food to hungry folks who dropped by until their pots were empty.”

In Belair, another extremely poor part of the Haitian capital, an organization with a long history in the neighbourhood called Solidarite Ant Jen (Solidarity Among Youth) took over a damaged kindergarten and began offering shelter and meals to four hundred displaced, along with medical and psychological care.

And in the country’s Central Plateau, the Mouvman Peyizan Papay provided lodging, meals and clothing to several dozen of the estimated 600,000 earthquake victims that fled the damaged capital and thus received no international disaster aid at all. The movement took up a collection to help peasant families inundated by the sudden return of traumatized relatives and even slaughtered two cows so they could bring food to patients at the Partners in Health hospital in nearby Mirebalais.

It is not that international participation was entirely absent from these projects. In Belair, water was delivered by a Canadian non-profit and some funding came from a German company. But unlike the vast majority of well-meaning emergency aid efforts – often surrounded by foreign soldiers and in some cases throwing sacks of rice out of helicopters “as if we were dogs,” as many complain to Bell — these alternative programs were set up and directed by Haitians. In these few salient cases, our good intentions met their terms,  their requirements.

The difference is summed up by APROSIFA’s Rose Anne Auguste when she points out that local organizations like hers “have our own vision of reconstruction for our country. We have a philosophy that corresponds to our reality, not the reality of the international community. What we want is for the international community, the foundations and agencies, to hear our philosophy and our dream for our people, our country.”

But that indigenous vision was rarely taken into account as hundreds of international agencies, large and small, scrambled to deal with symptoms — the medical emergencies and the lack of housing, food and water. It was also largely ignored during the post-earthquake reconstruction phase as well. As the tide of cash that flowed into Haiti in the early months of 2010 receded again, what has been left littering the shore are hundreds of examples of foreign plans and initiatives that fail to meet the needs of Haiti’s vast majority of poor.

“Corporations with little or no knowledge  of Haiti,” Bell writes, “were brought in as volunteers to plan, kick off and even staff the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the actor with the single greatest operational influence over shaping the reconstruction model after the quake.”

Talk about Haiti with most people and they will inevitably ask what happened to all the money that was pledged and donated by governments, international lending institutions and regular folk like them. The short answer is: we just don’t know. A lot went back to donor governments, with the United States, for example, using half of its $1.3 billion relief funding to pay itself for its emergency efforts and security.

Of the just over $6 billion in financial aid from global donors, including Canada, almost 90 percent went to non-Haitian organizations. Less than ten percent — $580 million –went to the Haitian government, and less than  one percent — $36 million — to local Haitian NGOs and businesses. As a Canadian International Agency press release announcing an initial grant of $150 million put it, every dollar would go “to facilitate rapid action by trusted and experienced humanitarian agencies.”

But how those agencies spent, and on what, is considered proprietary information. While some of it may have been helpful, “the lack of transparency,” writes Bell, “has also empowered opportunists to disregard standards, quality and honesty.”

The justification used by the majority of big donors, many of which have been working in Haiti for decades, is that local institutions and government lack “absorptive capacity,”  the ability to use the money properly. Yet as Solidarity among Youth volunteer and psychology professor Lenz Jean-Francois tells Bell, “what will traumatize the Haitian people even more than the thirty-five seconds of the earthquake is finding themselves, from one day to the next, standing with bowls in their hands and waiting for someone to give them a sheet so they can sleep. This dependence is terrible for people’s identity. People need to know we can count on ourselves. We have the capacity.”

As Fault Lines so clearly shows, the 2010 earthquake response only mirrors the inadequacies of decades of top-down development aid, with impoverished Haitians obliged to take whatever they can get rather than designing and implementing their own ideas for social and economic progress, supported by our collective solidarity. Well-intentioned as many non-profits may be, what they cannot do, says Bell is “alter the structural nonaccountability between  their employer, the government of their host country, and the people with whom they work. The agencies’ foreign funding, largely foreign staff and political relationship with Haiti dictate much about their effects in Haiti.”

More heartening news however can be seen in the continued combative response of dozens of organizations, which may have lost their offices, their only computer and even their own members in those fateful thirty-five seconds of devastation. Fault Lines describes how they have demonstrated against donations of Monsanto seeds, and for proper housing. They have forced the courts to bring criminal cases against men who raped girls and women in the IDP camps. Their relentless campaigning may seem modest, even puny, compared to big, publicity-grabbing schemes like five-star hotels and the Caracol Industrial Park, like a shout in a hurricane. But they are the best hope there is for solutions to the vast inequality that lies at the intersection of Haiti’s social and economic tectonic plates.

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

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

(A slightly longer version of this review came out today in Rabble.ca)

Some Thoughts on Chavez

7 Mar

There is a quote I use from Tony Benn in my book, Broke But Unbroken, that goes like this: “All progress comes from underneath. All real achievements are collective.”

It is an idea that is neither novel nor unusual, but with the death yesterday of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, I think it’s one many on the Left would do well to ponder.

Yes, he was an unalloyed champion of the Venezuelan underdog, using public money from the country’s oil industry to greatly reduce poverty and inequality. He took a country where an estimated 21 percent of people suffered from malnutrition and turned resources to education, health, housing, pensions for the elderly and agriculture. He supported grassroots social movements like Brazil’s Landless and Rural Workers Movement through scholarships to medical schools and agronomy courses. And in doing all of that he underlined the comparison we can make with other underdeveloped countries, especially the resource rich ones, that have never even tried to makes these kinds of endeavours and where poverty remains endemic and horrible.

But that is not a revolution. At least not the kind I’d prefer to see. Decision-making power remained in the hands of Chavez and his ministers. The improvements they made may have been significant, but they came from and were controlled up top, not down below.

And while I enjoyed his ‘the-smell-of-sulphur-is-still-here’ speech at the U.N. a few years ago as much as anyone,  I don’t think there is any kind of a positive spin that can be put on his embrace of extraordinarily nasty dictators like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Likewise, he may have got rid of the hegemony of profit-minded, rich-country petroleum companies in Venezuela’s oil fields, yet only transferred the same powers to China, one of the most undemocratic nations on earth. According to Intercambio Climático, it now owes China more than $35 billion in so-called commodity backed loans.

The disconnect between popularity and popular power can be seen, I think, in the troubling story of a housing project Venezuela built in Zorange, a district near the slum of Cité Soleil, in the Haitian capital of Port au Prince. Built at a cost of $4.9 million, 128 solid new homes sat empty for 15 months before a few chosen families were finally allowed to move in. By then desperate squatters had already gone in and taken over 50 of the houses. Who would get a house and through what mechanism has never been very clear, but one thing is certain: this was not a project designed with or directed by any organization of the urban poor in Haiti. Representatives of government, both Venezuelan and Haitian, were the one making the decisions.

Anyone can make mistakes, but the emotional, even irrational, adulation of Chavez and hatred of anyone who questioned him makes it impossible to want to cut the late leader any slack. Villifying people who have ideas different from his — and I do not include here the kind of people who would like to roll back time and have a small, ridiculously over-privileged elite return to its position of power — is not just short-sighted and unhelpful but unfair.(Ibid for the folks who lean the other way and think Chavez is the worst leader in the world.)

Venezuela still faces major challenges. Its crime rate is out of control — and along with enough to eat and a roof over one’s head, basic security is also a human right. Its economy is highly unbalanced, raising questions regarding whether it will need to exploit dirtier sources of oil and exacerbate global warming, and of course the wide political gulf still divides Venezuelans.

Authentic political and socio-economic progress still eludes Venezuela, but when it does come, it will be collective and it will come from below.