Will soft bigotry hurt Haiti?

Brian J. Stevens, a former reporter with the Haitian Times newspaper writes at America:

. . . As non-governmental organizations and foreign governments flood the country with desperately needed food, water and medical supplies, Haitian voices once again do not appear to be playing a role in helping to direct the aid where it needs to go. Residents of the southern Haitian city of Grand Goave told the Inter Press Service News Agency that there is “a network of seven neighborhood leaders for each section of the city that has not been tapped in the relief effort.” Aid workers are insisting that local leadership play a role. Dolores Rescheleit of the German NGO Arche Nova told IPS, “For us, it was very important to do this without military. Because the people in the camp are very strong. When you give the responsibility to the people in the camp, they will do it better than we will with the military.”

“A committee of Haitians, with sub-committees to handle security, hygiene, and aid distribution, is governing the camp without problems,” Rescheleit added.

Without an approach to relief and reconstruction that includes Haitian voices, the international community may meet the immediate need at hand, but the creation of a stable, self-sufficient Haiti will likely remain elusive.

This echos, a little, the messages that come through from Missionary Ed, over in Petit Goave, which I assume is near Grand Goave. Ed has written:

As we continue to give out food and supplies, I realized, we’ve been doing this for the last 14 years. We have a pretty good system. . . . It is a huge task and we are dealing with hundreds and they with thousands. I shared a few of our ideas with them, we’ll see what happens. One thing is to spread out the handouts and do them at the same time in different places. This breaks up the crowds and keeps would be bullies from being first in line at each stop…. They can’t be more than one place at a time.

At church two weeks after earthquake, Photo by Ed

The people in Haiti should certainly know how Haiti “works;” they should be consulted about the handling of communities that are under great stress and will be further challenged by refugees out of Port au Prince. They should also be included in the management of recovering and rebuilding.

The story of one Haitian worker in Port-au-Prince illustrates this potential harm: Delande Jean-Michel is a technician at a private firm contracted by the Haitian electric company to provide power for the capital. . . . Since the quake the plant remains off-line while technicians from three foreign-based companies evaluate the damage and make repairs. The foreign technicians, engineers and specialists are working without accompaniment by Haitian employees, who remain idle.

In a phone interview, Jean-Michel expressed the anxiety of his fellow Haitians who had jobs at the plant before the quake, but now fear they may be in jeopardy. “In this phase, they don’t need Haitians,” Jean-Michel said he was told. “There’s a 50 percent chance I’ll get my job back,” Jean-Michel said, expressing concern that American companies and government institutions would over time effectively take over the country.

“There are many things that Haitians can do,” Jean-Michel said. “If they’re [foreign technicians] doing that work, they should have Haitians by their side. And it would create work.”

I would never stand for anyone denigrating the efforts of the US and other nations in getting aid, relief, medical attention and more to the Haitian people, but as repair and reconstruction begins, it must include the Haitian people, or the message they will be receiving is one that might be translated as part of the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” – a message that they are incapable of taking care of themselves. No one wants to hear that message. No one wants to be told they must live their lives by hand-out.

We Christians are often chided for saying that God’s ways are mysterious, and that sometimes bad things must happen in order for something better to occur. The Crucifix is our daily reminder of this truth; without it, there would have been no resurrection. Lately we have heard that the schools of New Orleans have been improved thanks to the need for ground-up reconfiguring after Hurricane Katrina. Out of the chaos of this earthquake, perhaps Haiti will become a tiny island that – with hands-up rather than hands-out assistance over a long stretch of time – will finally be able to stand on its own.

Crisis and opportunity go hand-in-hand, both for good or for evil. Relief countries and organizations have a chance to help Haiti not just to survive, but to thrive and become self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency cannot happen, however, in the shadow of those “soft bigotries” of low expectations, that often prevent the good hands of help from transforming into hands that can help themselves.

Handing out food to women helps insure that more get fed. I believe that. Feeding is what women know. It’s in our natures. Not that men can’t…it’s just different. Men and women are different. :-)

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://www.shaunkenney.com Shaun Kenney

    Not to ding the government of Haiti too much, but is there really an institutional backbone that can be relied upon to distribute aid?

    If anything, if the situation is still fluid, allowing relief organizations to get resources to the people first is a key priority. Only after that process is concluded to a reasonable status would one want to involve the Haitian government apparatus. Ideally, when the relief organizations step away, the Haitian people will have the institutions to foster real economic development and institutional memory.

    Until then, relief is the #1 priority. Making sure everyone has a seat at the table can come during the rebuilding phase.

    My US$0.02 FWIW.

  • http://www.savkobabe.blogspot.com Gayle Miller

    Distribution of aid purchased with American dollars – mostly donated by people like me who couldn’t really afford it – should be done by Americans. The culture of corruption in Haiti is pervasive and yes, the Haitians can help themselves but if that is so universally true, why haven’t they done so in the past 5-8 years when over $3 billion U.S. dollars have gone into their nation’s coffers? That’s the worrisome thing. I’m all for being generous and open-hearted. I’m not, however, willing to be a patsy!

    [I don't think it's about being a patsy, though. Just as the people of Iraq have to recover their sense of themselves after 35 years of tyranny, if they are to be Democratic, the people of Haiti will have to recover from decades (centuries!) of being treated like nothings, or rabble, in order to learn to do for themselves. I know they can do it, though -admin]

  • http://northshorejournal.org/comparison-of-haiti-donations-to-katrina-and-the-tsunami Chuck Simmins

    I share some of Shaun’s concerns. I have not seen any sign that the government of Haiti is functioning outside of meetings that they are chauffeured to by the UN or the US military.

    Fully 2/3 of the country and its population was not affected by the quake. Where are these people, their trucks and bulldozers and such? We see video of Haitians standing along rubble strewn streets while foreign aid drives by. They can’t even pick up the rocks in the roadway?

    Hurricane season is a few months away. Without a huge amount of work on the part of the Haitians, most of the quake survivors will be unprepared.

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    They can’t even pick up the rocks in the roadway?

    You could say the same thing about the trash and even sewage that you see in pictures from refugee camps (assuming that such pictures from the MSM are accurate portrayals).

    But there is an explanation — learned helplessness, learned dependency, learned poverty.

    Indeed, you even will have certain elites encouraging people in this. I can still remember vividly shouting in these pages, along with many others, that if you were in New Orleans with Katrina approaching, you needed to get the hell out of there on your own no matter what your situation was. And I can remember other people responding that those of us who were advocating self-reliance, rather than relying upon government, were cold-hearted bastards.

    In far too many of the wretched parts of the world, the people have been sold on the lie of salvation by government or charitable organization. And that only makes a bad situation worse. It ends up turning areas where there are few economic opportunities into areas where there are no economic opporutnities. It ends up turning areas where people might have a can-do, let’s fix it ourselves attitude, into areas where folks sit in the mud in overcrowded refugee camps doing nothing, not even picking up the trash next to them, and even that is exacerbated by United Nations troops who run these areas like concentration camps.

    In some areas, like in underdeveloped Africa, leaders are now telling the West that the practice of treating these areas like welfare recipients, thereby fostering dependency, causes more harm than good. Rather, the assistance that is needed is help in building free market economies, i.e. capitalism. Instead of encouraging do-nothing dependency, the West should be encouraging economic individualism, that is, the freedom and ability to do it yourself.

    Now that the first response is done, as we move into the rebuilding stage, the best thing for the Haitian people is not for a bunch of foreigners to go and build new structures for them. The best thing is to use our financial aid to hire and pay Haitians to rebuild themselves. Rather than send food, to the extent possible, buy from Haitian farmers.

    The best thing would be for Obama to tell U.S. unions to get lost, end protectionism, and encourage U.S. companies to build some factories in Haiti and otherwise build up the Haitian economy. But I expect Obama will not do that. He is about destroying economies, and not about pursuing policies that allow them to be built up.

    [I am all for industry putting some money into Haiti. There is no reason why companies can't get in there and build some hotels on the shore, and create some sort of manufacturing jobs further inland. But they have to be willing to use some of those profits to further invest in Haiti, not simply pull all the profits out. That leads to Jamaica, where some locals are lucky enough to have jobs in the recreational industry, and the rest have to make do, or end up selling drugs, because outside of the tourism, there is nothing there. -admin]

  • expat

    Some NGOs seem to reject military involvement as an almost knee-jerk reaction. I’ve heard some comments that made me question whether some helpers can even begin to understand the overall logistical situation. I read somewhere that at first there was only one forklift at the airport to unload the cargo planes. So someone has to make a decision about which plane gets landing priority–the one carrying food or the one carrying forklifts that will permit faster turnover of aid. It would be a big help if everyone would look beyond his own position and aim for integration of efforts instead of whining.

    I am all for letting the Haitians take more control, but I would ask them to remember that at first we didn’t know who had survived the quake. Also, it is quite possible that a person who can run a program under relatively normal circumstances might not be the most effective at getting needed items from point A to point B within 3 days.

  • Sandy Daze

    2 February 2010

    The United Nations, which is struggling with what it believes is an antiquated facility on Turtle Bay, should be moved to Haiti.

    Lock, Stock, and Barrel.

    In Haiti, the entire world can bring the best of its talents on post-disaster reconstruction, mentoring, education, health care etc.

    How could the world not respond if its diplomats must live and conduct diplomacy in Haiti?

    More, just having the United Nations in Haiti would result in a multi-year jobs program in building and maintenance.

    The jobs created to keep the UN in a life to which it has become accustomed would probably employ directly 10% of the Haitian population, indirectly another 20%.

    The inflow of money would be incredible.

    I am tired of complaints about US hegemony in Haiti – we are only trying to perform consequence management in the face of extreme circumstances.

    Time to turn lemons into lemonade. Lets bring the entire world’s attention to this miserable home of these down trodden people. Without something dramatic like placing the Headquarters of the United Nations in Haiti– “Haiti, District of the World” or “Haiti, D.W.”–nothing will change.

    In a few months to a year, the U.S. will pull its official hand out of the bucket of water known as Haiti, and the nation will revert to the catastrophe that is was before the earthquake, if not worse.

    We–we are the world–we can do much better.

    Take good care,

  • http://www.bunkerville.wordpress.com Loakandload

    Christains are doing more for Haiti than any other religions. I don’t see the Muslims. The steady drumbeat of the U.S. not getting it just right is getting very old.

    Max Beauvoir, Haiti’s “supreme master” of voodoo, alleged his faith’s opponents had deliberately prevented much-needed help from reaching followers of the religion, which blends the traditional beliefs of West African slaves with Roman Catholicism.
    The evangelicals are in control and they take everything for themselves,” he claimed. “They have the advantage that they control the airport where everything is stuck. They take everything they get to their own people and that’s a shame. Now the voodoo folks complain. link

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    they have to be willing to use some of those profits to further invest in Haiti, not simply pull all the profits out

    This is true. But if you have real industry, and not merely an economy based on tourism — whether it is Jamaica or Las Vegas — then the trade dollars coming in do stay there. But you also have to be careful not to come in with too many dollars too fast, or else you can kill the local economy with inflation.

  • Peter


    I agree with what you say. I think some of the commentators here are confusing the Haitian people with their government. That the Haitian government is corrupt and ineffective is an old story, and it would take too long to elaborate on that here. And, yes, the U.S. and the French share some of the blame, each in their way propped up brutal and corrupt regimes. If Haiti could return to being a largely self-sustaining agricultural economy that would be a good step. But, even there, international agricultural trade policies and crop subsidies make it very difficult for farmers in poor nations to make a living.

    I hope that the expatriate Haitians in the U.S. can help rebuild their native country. They have clearly been responding to the crisis. This could be an opportunity for them to contribute to their country in a way they would not have been able to before.

    I think the U.S. military and the NGOs are doing the best they can, but the military in particular needs to try to phase itself out as soon as possible, and it looks like they are already taking some steps in that direction. The history of the U.S. military in Haiti is too connected to past abuses for it to take any role beyond the crisis support it has provided.

    I think the story of the Baptist group who tried to take some children to the Dominican Republic to establish an orphanage is probably an example of the kind of “soft racism” you talk about here. I am sure they meant well, but they arrogated too much authority to themselves without finding out more about the children they were trying to help. This is not necessarily a question of getting the permission of the seemingly all but nonexistent government, but one of not trying first to reunite the children with their families, as difficult as that effort might be under the circumstances. At least that’s how it appears now.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    The people in Haiti should certainly know how Haiti “works;”…

    yes, they do.

    You “give” supplies to politician X and he skims one third off the top for his relative to sell it on the black market…

    And when giving them out, he makes sure everyone knows “he” is giving out the food (so vote for him or else).

    We face this in the Philippines, which is why the AFP (armed forces of the Philippines) are the ones the most trusted. The corruption is rampant, and although NGO’s and local government officials, most of whom are honest, try their best in disasters, some of the aid money always gets siphoned off…