Why don’t they just go home?

April 29, 2010

by Joegodson and Paul

Our site, focusing on the relationship between the people and communities of Haiti and the outside world, is proposing a framework for the reconstruction. The basic principle is sometimes called subsidiarity: local communities should control themselves whenever and wherever possible. What we have been showing is that poor Haitian communities are clear about what they want at the local level and how that could fit into more just national and global economies. We have also shown that they have had no support to realize those projects. What is in fact happening in Haiti is the opposite: huge sums of money have been collected or promised in order to empower a few technocrats totally disconnected from the daily lives of Haitians. They decide that Haitians should move here today, there tomorrow. They decide that Haitians will assemble this or that product for the American market. They plan from afar and they are far from the hearts of poor Haitians.

 Whose first choice would be to beg for the necessities of life from people who come from the same countries that have destroyed your own?

 In 2006, the two authors were well acquainted with an orphanage with no reliable means of financial support in a poor neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince. Joegodson was a neighbour and friend of the orphanage and saw it as his social responsibility to introduce Paul in case he might choose to help in some way. At the time, there were thirty girls and boys ranging from five years old to seventeen. Local parents, destitute, sometimes appeared at the gates, asking that the orphanage care for the children that they could no longer feed.  Some of the children had been accepted in that manner. Others were rescued from abusive situations. Some were actually orphans who otherwise would have been homeless. The orphanage needed funding to pay for the care of the children. The children, in turn, were the most effective fundraising tools at the disposition of the orphanage.

 The managers of the orphanage played by the rules of international charity. They had learned that people from the rich countries respond most generously when Haitians present themselves as victims. North American culture has created two Haitians that it calls upon in different situations, but with the same objective in mind.

 One is a poor victim, preferably female, with roots in Africa. These Haitians are simple, uncomplicated, joyous, and touchingly spiritual, despite the crushing weight of poverty and almost genetic (racial) inability to enter the modern world. If you are Haitian, this is the one that you want to present to the misery tourists from the North. North American Christian groups sponsor short misery excursions to Haiti. Misery tourists come back to North America having witnessed real deprivation. It can be a very uplifting experience.

 The second Haitian is dangerous. He (for this fictional Haitian is usually male) is savage, violent, criminal, and wanton. This is the one that needs to be stopped by all possible means. He is no longer spiritual, but controlled by demonic, vodouist spirits. He is not charmingly simple, but obstinately stupid. He is contemptuous of peace, order, and good government. He demonstrates that disdain by his rejection of North American tutelage.

 Both figures competed for attention as the dust settled on Port-au-Prince after January 12. The Americans sent 20,000 soldiers to quell the violence and criminality that was about to erupt … but never did. (For us, the notion that more guns were needed from North America was absurd indeed, since those guns have always been the prime source of violence in Haiti.) Soon, however, the helpless victim of history was given centre stage in the North American media. That mythic figure was going to be much more useful for raising funds. Enormous amounts were raised, especially in Canada, to help the innocent victims of a natural disaster. The aid organizations have masterfully manipulated the trope of the long-suffering, innocent Haitian. Human-interest stories – necessarily apolitical – of survival and bravery flood their websites and the media.

 However, we need to start preparing ourselves for the return of Haitian Number 2, the violent ingrate who wants to control his own country and can’t see that he isn’t qualified. The Haitian as savage is the perfect complement to the Haitian as victim. North Americans will want to know whom they are protecting in killing the chimères. Recently, we saw this played out in Afghanistan, where chivalrous NATO troops were supposed to be protecting victimized Afghan women against the misogynist, and otherwise antisocial, Taliban. Any competent screenwriter should be able to rewrite the Afghan plot for use in the inevitable military intervention in Haiti. In any case, the North American public may remember some of the disinformation from the Aristide episode. That would make the propaganda much easier to sell.

 The media, cultural constructions in North America serve the interests of those who have the means to create and disseminate them. We all live in a world of illusions. We delude ourselves when we refuse to ask elementary questions. In that case, our actions are based on deceptive objectives. But Haitians also live with – and live around – the illusions created about them for the North American audience.

 As living conditions of poor Haitians have deteriorated over the last two decades, the sources of help have proliferated. All manner of NGOs arrive from the North. The North American governments fund most of them. Many are missionaries with their own interpretation of Christianity. Just about anyone who wants to do just about anything is allowed to enter Haiti from the North. The government welcomes them in; maybe they’ll offer some service for the poor. Meanwhile, the Haitian, American, and Canadian elite can continue to pocket all of the money they make off the poor without putting a cent into social programs. However, those poor – in a sharp contrast to the philanthropists from the North – can’t get out of Haiti even faced with starvation and death. Without its multitudes of poor, Haiti would not be profitable to the elites. Haitians look for financial support from the only source of funding available: some foreign aid organization that comes from the countries that refuse to accept Haitian independence and who work with the national kleptocracy.

 The managers of the orphanage, like many other Haitians looking for funds, had learned to play the humanitarian aid game. They listened for what the donor wanted to hear and presented that image. Donors want to fund victims. But the victims must remain in need in order that the aid continue to flow. That is not difficult in Haiti, where there is so little chance of material advancement. (Haiti has been made chronically dependent on external sources of revenue for its survival.) Once that game is in motion, it’s hard for any of the players to escape. The humanitarian organizations have to demonstrate Haiti’s penury in order to collect the funds necessary to keep themselves in business. The careers of the NGO personnel demand it. Haitians need to show themselves to be victims in order to eat.

 When the authors knew the orphanage, it had been a long-standing practice to have the thirty children stand in a group and sing a song (in English that they did not understand) to whatever North Americans might be enticed to visit. That was a main fund-raising activity of the orphanage. The children were singing to white foreigners for their supper. As co-author Paul came to speak Creole (thanks, in part, to those children), he taught science or English classes to all thirty kids. As time passed, especially the older children came to discuss their anxieties. How they hated singing for their keep! They knew that the funds came into the orphanage when they presented themselves as victims. If they veered from the role written for them somewhere, then they would not eat. They knew that, once they reached eighteen years of age, they would be on their own in an economy with no jobs. They had no family support. “Singing,” said sixteen-year old Johnny, “brings me face to face with my hopeless situation.”

 At one point, the authors introduced a group of Americans to the orphanage. Mostly members of one family, the Americans had been disillusioned in the past to find that their charitable donations had gone to corrupt or unaccountable NGOs. The had imagined a bold family project whereby they would create their own organization that would then find a worthy project and fund it themselves. They would bypass corruption and assure themselves that their work was meaningful.

 The children seduced the matriarch of the new humanitarian enterprise in no time. She returned to the United States with her friend and together, they began preparing the groundwork to sponsor an orphanage in Haiti. Plans developed to return to Port-au-Prince after a couple of months to first put the orphanage in decent shape: paint the walls, build picnic benches so that the children didn’t need to eat sitting on the ground, and buy some luxuries like mattresses for the children to sleep on.

 Two months later, the Americans rolled into Port-au-Prince to inaugurate their charity work. They were a force. They painted the orphanage with the help of the kids and built a couple of picnic tables. The two authors watched but were involved in another project and had little time to spend at the orphanage. (Note: co-author Paul watched as one of the northern philanthropists explained carpentry to the children. The kids glanced at Joegodson who is recognized in the neighbourhood as a highly skilled furniture maker – if he has wood and is paid for his work. Joegodson registered not a trace of resentment and the American never realized that his skills were rudimentary next to those of the young Haitian passing by. But the Americans were all there to teach, not to learn.)

 (Now, the Canadian co-author, Paul, discusses the ensuing events from his, North American perspective:)

 The orphanage was located in what had been a middle-class district during the Duvalier dictatorships. Over the preceding thirty years, migrant peasants had overtaken the neighbourhood. They had created the opposite of urban sprawl. It is rather urban cramming. Especially around the small ravines that flowed down from the mountain, peasants – now the urban poor – threw up whatever hovels they could manage. With no sewage, garbage disposal, or any other infrastructure, they adapted peasant life to Port-au-Prince. As I walked to the orphanage, I always passed thin, bare-footed, locals: the pieds nus of Delmas. I tried to connect with them sometimes, when my Creole had improved thanks to the exchanges with Joegodson, but the pieds nus were not interested. Neither were they impolite. I existed no more for them than they had existed for me in my initial view of the neighbourhood. They were illiterate, of course. And they were all in more desperate need of help than the orphanage.

 An off-hand comment, overheard, changed my view of these pieds nus that I had passed by and by-passed for months. The Americans had decided that, to raise money for their humanitarian enterprise, they would buy local artwork on the cheap and sell it in the United States at a big profit. In effect, the Americans had assumed the power to decide that poor Haitian artisans – of extraordinary talent – would fund the orphanage as much as possible. Meanwhile, the Americans would retain control of the dispensation of funds. From the beginning, they made it clear to the managers that they were going to run a tight ship.

 As I was walking to the orphanage one morning, the Americans were coming back from their shopping spree, the back of a pick-up truck filled with local artwork that you haggle for on the streets everywhere. They were obviously delighted at their haul and were loudly celebrating in the back of the pick-up. Behind me were the local pieds nus, casually leaning against the concrete wall, surrounded by mud on all sides, as was their custom. A woman’s voice, as if resigned to the all of the outrages of our time, intoned a bored, “Why don’t they just go home.”

 At first, I had not understood the Creole that people spoke around me. As I became proficient, I naturally limited myself to those Haitians who approached or befriended me, like co-author Joegodson. Now, a whole new and important group was making itself known to me by not making itself known to me. Increasingly, her cheerless voice haunts my memories. I’m quite sure that there was a formidable strength of character behind it. I imagine now that she was refusing to play the game when she knew that the rules were all arranged against her and that the referees would change them anyway the minute that she might begin to win. As I reflect on it, that power of refusal was everywhere among the poor of Haiti. Sometimes, in the slums, people who assumed that I must be a soldier could be quite aggressive towards me. I don’t blame them at all.

(Back to co-authorship:) 

Like the local pieds nus, Kerbens refused the game. Kerbens was a kokorat. Kokorats are abandoned children – girls and boys – who live on the streets of Port-au-Prince. No one cares for them and people treat them with contempt. They return the sentiment. Kokorats own only the dirty clothes that they wear; they sleep in abandoned cars, beg, steal, and survive as they can. There are thousands of kokorats in Port-au-Prince. The earthquake didn’t change things for them as they have always lived the way everyone is living now. After the quake, they looked for bourgeois families forced to sleep under the stars. The kokorats would take turns urinating into a container and, when they have collected enough, they would pour the contents over the bourgeois campsites as they slept.

 Back in 2006, Kerbens appeared one day, barefoot and filthy, at the gate of the orphanage. He was taken in and became a part of the group for a couple of weeks. Then, one day, he decided that he preferred life as a kokorat to singing for whites for his food. He left and was seen from time to time running with the other kokorats, shoeless and filthy once again.

 Periodically, the orphanage would find itself in a real crisis, with no funds and no food for the children. Normally, the local merchant women advanced them food on credit. However, with the exception of Wall Street, there are limits to credit everywhere. Faced with one such crisis, the managers (a married couple) had sold their mattress to buy food. Faced with a previous crisis, they had already sold their bed.

 Now, the Americans were keen to establish the ground rules that would frame the relationship between the Haitian managers and themselves. The Americans had asked for a detailed requisition for mattresses for the orphanage. The managers included in the list a replacement for the one they had previously sold. In other words, thirty single bed mattresses and one double, of considerably better quality.

 Co-author Paul was requested to appear before the committee, otherwise composed of the Americans and one local translator that they had needed to bring into the inner circle since none of them spoke Creole or French. The damning list was presented – evidence of Haitian corruption against which the Americans were going to take a strong stand. In response, Paul asked how much the executive director of an American orphanage would make in salary and bonuses – 100,000$US? In that context, a real mattress may not appear out of line. That answer elicited universal consternation and outrage: “This is Haiti, not America!”

 Nothing could have been more revealing. Here were Americans who didn’t speak the local languages, knew nothing of Haitian (or, apparently, relevant American) history, had no understanding of the actual economy that the orphanage managers faced and the children would be facing, dictating the terms of operation. Their one certainty was that this was not America … and it would remain that way! It is certainly true that America cannot be seen as a model for any country. An empire cannot be a model, since it is already exploiting other economies. Those economies have no economies to exploit in their turn. The Americans, somehow, knew this and entered Haiti with a clear sense of the proper Haitian-American relationship. It was outrageous – and, apparently, insulting – to imagine a Haitian in the same position as an American executive director. Haitians were – and were to remain – poor, dependent, and thankful.

 They meant well. They were good people. They wanted to help. But that, in our opinion, is the problem.

 By all accounts, the earthquake was a great opportunity for the NGOs to raise funds. Haitians were incontestably victims of an unprecedented catastrophe. All of the NGO websites are full of human-interest stories. And so, on a personal level, North Americans can respond to relieve the suffering. But humanitarian and developmental organizations are notorious for taking the politics, and hence the history, out of their analyses. This allows them to continue in business. But their main source of funding, and the ability to continue their work, comes from the same governments that have promoted Haitian destitution and dependency. Haitians, we try to show above, are forced to play a game of survival where the rules are written elsewhere.

At the moment, the world owes Haiti all the material aid it can muster. But when aid organizations and their workers enter Haiti, they should do so with great humility and deference to Haitian competence. Haitians are, instead, in the position once again of playing the role written for them by the masters of the world as the United Nations Special Envoy wheels and deals with their future.

It’s no one’s first choice.

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