Tag Archives: Overseas Development Aid

From Underdogs to Watch Dogs

25 Jun

Now that a couple of watertight deadlines have passed, I’m free to start thinking about restocking the (sadly neglected) shelves of the Global Kiosk. I am also back to reading about Haiti and thinking about something that struck me as often overlooked when it comes to a nation’s ability to decide its own destiny.

And that is the role of journalism — that’s right, my own profession. (Admittedly one I sort of fell into and took awhile to actually embrace.)

So I am dedicating this first post after a rather long hiatus to a small organization called Haiti Grassroots Watch, or Ayiti Kale Je (which means Haiti Eyes Peeled in Creole, a language full of interesting metaphors!)

HGW is an online news partnership. It works with journalism students and with community radio stations — a major if not the major source of news in Haiti — to go after the stories no one else is telling.

People in affluent countries may take investigative journalism for granted sometimes. But I don’t think there is any doubt that the examples of mayhem and malfeasance unearthed by news investigations give us a better understanding of what our politicians and corporations get up to. We can use that information to decide how we want to vote, or whether we want to avoid patronizing unethical companies (see PfizerBedford Biofuels, Suncor, Cargill, etc ), or even to campaign for change.  It is also true that people might not care about such scandals and what they imply, but at least we can’t complain that we don’t know what’s going on.

But think about what it is like in a small, poor country where the truth is hard to divine. Where information is power — and also a luxury. It not only means that the road you need to bring your produce to market is never fixed because the maintenance funds have gone into someone’s Swiss bank account. It also means that a particular class can live in a world apart from those they govern, whether politically or economically. And it creates a vicious circle: as media and media workers (usually very poorly paid) don’t bother keeping their “eyes peeled’ and exposing corruption or bad decisions, average people remain uninformed and unable to demand accountability. And the more people are uninformed, the easier it is for lazy media owners and complacent journalists to keep on ignoring the hard truths.

I touched on the problem in my last post, on the unethical and partisan nature of Mexico’s largest television networks. But Haiti is another, even better example, perhaps, of a country where so much shit happens and so little of it ever hits the fan. Mendacity and demagoguery can often seem like the matrix in which everyone is swimming around.

There have been valiant attempts in the past to speak truth to power as they say, most notably by Jean Dominique and his Radio Haiti-Inter. But Jean Dominique was killed in 2000, and instead of a culture of investigative journalism prevailing in Haiti these days, one finds in its place a culture of mediocrity and resignation.

Recently, for example, Nuria Piera, a journalist from the Dominican Republic, exposed a criminal deal through which a wealthy Dominican politician named Felix Bautista won post-earthquake reconstruction contracts worth more than $343 million by providing kick-backs to Haitian president Michel Martelly. And while Dominican authorities are apparently now investigating Bautista, in Haiti, not many people are even aware of the president’s pocketing of more than $2.5 million while refusing to tender the jobs and allowing Haitian firms to compete.

There are plenty more examples of shady dealings in Haiti, and that’s why I encourage readers to check out Haiti Grassroots Watch. They will find all kinds of interesting material on its website about how earthquake relief money is being spent — or not, as the case may be. International NGOs keep talking about how important it is for the recipients of aid to demonstrate capacity, to know how to properly use the money these NGOs have to donate. But if at the same time those so-called recipients are kept purposefully and unfairly in the dark, how can they develop any “capacity” for accountability?

Readers of HGW will also get a far more nuanced version of the recent news about the discovery of gold, silver and copper deposits in the north of Haiti. Business articles are, of course, enthusiastically predicting untold wealth for the impoverished country now that foreign mining companies are planning on exploiting those reserves. But, of course, the people of Haiti are unlikely to see any of the resulting proceeds. The mining companies will take most of it, and corrupt governors the rest.

Probably one of the best aspects of the entire project, however, is the fact that it not just training and encouraging young journalists in the difficult art of uncovering scandals and crime; it also provides them with a platform for text, audio and visual material — and all with a budget best described as miniscule. Why aren’t the big INGOs helping Haiti Kale Je out?

One of the most useful ends to which money can be put, not only in Haiti but in other poor and oppressed countries around the world, is in funding investigative journalism.

Because without a watch-dog press, the underdogs will always remain voiceless and powerless.