It was never about Haiti. It’s easy to claim the opposite, and I occasionally do in my more self-indulgent moments because it fits the narrative, but in those moments I’m a liar. It was never about Haiti. It was about me.
Restless and again feeling the recurring itch of something I’d not yet figured out how to scratch, Haiti unfolded herself one afternoon over a few beers at the East Village Tavern, a local on the corner of 10th and C, Alphabet City, Manhattan, NYC. Sitting at one of the outside tables enjoying the spring sun, I was in discussion with Paddy, a close friend of mine who’d been in the humanitarian and disaster game for a while, and had been on his way back to England from Haiti until Iceland’s volcano decided to pick a fight with the international airline industry and marooned him midway. He was crashing at mine until flights resumed.
“Now’s your chance mate. You’ve been wanting to do this for years.” He was right of course, and I knew it. Twenty eight years old, recently single, uncommitted to a job or family, and able to cash in shares I earned as an early web startup employee, I was in the perfect position to shift. Knowing very little about Haiti outside of the fact that it was one of the poorest countries in the world and had recently been flattened by an earthquake, she fit the bill nicely for an aspiring would-be humanitarian / writer looking for an appropriately “legit” place to cut his teeth. At Paddy’s advice I contacted All Hands Volunteers (then known as Hands On Disaster Response), a volunteer organization doing work on the ground in Leogane, the city at the epicenter of the quake, and committed to being with them until the end of their project (then planned through 2010). Upon acceptance, and with Paddy back in the UK, I began the process of wrapping up my life in New York, condensing it down to a few boxes stashed in the attic of a family friend in New Jersey, and the two bags I’d be hauling with me to JFK en route to Port-au-Prince. On July 1st, 2010, I left.
Prior to landing at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, I had felt confident in my worldliness. Self-assured by equal parts ego and personal history (born abroad, well-traveled) I knew Haiti would be something different, but didn’t expect it to surprise me. I grossly overestimated myself. Head against the window of the dilapidated Jeep that slowly wove through the labyrinth that is Haiti’s capital, I was silent, camera in hand but largely unused, watching a very different version of life unfold in dusty, loud, morbidly fascinating real-time. Amputees hobbled on ill-fitted crutches, knocking on car windows. Two feet away from the belches and growls of the highway, a woman sat on the curb bathing a naked infant in a dented metal washbin half-full of tepid water. Behind her, their small USAID-branded tarp shelter, one of countless lined single file along the narrow divide between opposing lanes, shimmered in the exhaust fumes. UN soldiers in light blue helmets sat knee to knee in the back of white canvas-covered trucks, automatic rifles on their laps. Everywhere countless flattened buildings and piles of rubble and twisted rebar. I was captured, that drive from Port-au-Prince to Leogane, and made clear of two things: this was unlike any place I’d ever known, and, despite what I might have believed before, I was as susceptible as any to the shocking rush of poverty porn.
Leogane is a rural city, with a dense urban center and a sprawling periphery. It has a distinct smell to it - a heavy, nauseating, sweet thickness that bubbles up from the viscous black run-off emptying out of numerous kleren distilleries, where sugar cane is turned into Haiti’s equivalent of moonshine, for which Leogane is famous. Goats and dogs with bad legs scurry between street vendors who stack greasy piles of fried chicken, pork and beef on metal trays covered with plastic sheets to keep the flies off, but do little against the dust. A few gas stations with attached food marts function as the city’s only real “supermarkets”, one of which, Chou Chou, is popular with the international community given it has air conditioning. Situated on the northern coast of Haiti’s southwest peninsula, roughly twenty miles west of the capital, Leogane was closest to the center of the quake when it struck in January 2010, leveling most of the city and killing tens of thousands of people. A mass grave outside the cemetery is the final resting place for many of them. At night, the city can be eerie - powerless and dark except for the headbeams of cars and motorcycles, and the faint glow of vendors’ oil lamps. After eleven, it’s virtually empty, the uneven streets laid bare and reflecting the moon from large, seemingly permanent puddles. It is rumored that vodou is particularly potent here, and the midnight hour is host to those things best left alone – lugarou (werewolves), hougan (vodou priests) and their bodyslaves, the zombies. Few locals dare risk an encounter.
The base I called home for a year and a half, Belval Plaza, was an unfinished music venue - large, open, and one of the few buildings relatively undamaged during the earthquake. That summer hundreds of international volunteers passed through, mostly American but from many other parts of the world as well. At the height of volunteer interest, 140 of us shared Belval. I opted to live on the roof in a small yellow tent, as opposed to setting up shop in one of the bunks underneath. Regardless, privacy wasn’t a particularly viable option, and there was something compelling in that. This was something entirely new – bucket showers and broken toilets and the constant purr of a generator keeping everything lit until it went silent at 10PM. It wouldn’t be an unfair statement to say it had as much in common with a Third World summer camp as it did with an aid organization’s headquarters. Most volunteers came for a month or so, with a core group of staff and volunteers in it for the long haul. I fell into the second category, first as a volunteer, and later, as staff. As might be expected from a place charged with young, unleashed energy, it had a certain hedonism to it. There was a lot of drinking, dancing, laughing. There was a lot of sex. It felt good. Central to the place were the local volunteers - young, mostly male Haitians that came to the base every morning, worked alongside us during the day, and partied with us in the evening. Joe’s Bar, attached to Belval Plaza on one side, was a melting pot of foreigners and locals, booze, and music pumped through semi-blown speakers.
The work we did was varied, but focused primarily on unskilled, labor-intensive jobs that untrained volunteers, many with no international aid background (myself included), could do. Clearing rubble from plots so that families could begin to rebuild was a primary focus, as it fell low on the agendas of the “real NGOs”, and we took pride in that, and earned the respect of the community. The majority of volunteers spent their days destroying and clearing collapsed homes by hand – sledgehammers, pickaxes, shovels, wheelbarrows – as most of the heavy machinery brought into the country was assigned to Port-au-Prince. We worked hard in Haiti, and Haiti worked us hard in return. Many of us lost substantial weight, and earned new scars. The local volunteers would laugh early and often as just-arrived foreigners wilted after two swings of a sledgehammer in the summer heat. Some of us got laid out with malaria, and dengue, and cholera. Much later, one of us would die.
My first months in Haiti were lived unquestioned. I made friends, I explored the country, I fell in love and drank and danced and swam the Caribbean and made a fool of myself in any interaction with the locals because I could not speak Kreyol and had no background in French, the country’s original colonial language upon which Kreyol is based. It was, in many respects, the happiest period of my life. It was also the period during which, in August 2010, I met James Fortil. A young man near my age who had come to Leogane from Gonaives, James worked with All Hands as a local volunteer in 2008 on another project in Haiti, and was returning to do the same again. Possessing a basic knowledge of English but stronger in Spanish (a language I also speak) given the few years he’d spent in the neighboring Dominican Republic, James and I bridged the communication gap, and he became my first true Haitian friend. In doing so, the process of a deeper, more personal understanding into the nature of Haiti and her people began, and so too the unraveling of my honeymoon with the country, with the work, with the people, and ultimately, with myself.
The process was a slow one. It came gradually, in those rare moments of silent contemplation, which given the nature of the base, and the constant attention that came from the locals upon leaving it, was hard to find. It came in drunken half-remembered conversations with James at the local watering hole (dubbed Little Venice given it sat on a drainage ditch), in which, tongue loosened by the alcohol, he would expose some of the fears and doubts he had about his future. It came in starting to feel disconnected from many of the newer volunteers, focusing most of my attentions on the long-termers, or, occasionally, on a pretty short-termer that made tent time more enjoyable. Mostly, it came from the gradual fading of the rush of being where I was. When the sensational transitions into the normal, and the normal is every day there, and you in it, you cannot help but begin to see things through a different lens. The rose-tinted glasses begin to slip. This was not a process unique to me. The discussions we had about Haiti were of two entirely different qualities depending on who was having them: the newer internationals fresh with excitement and seeing beauty in all things, and the long-termers engaging the cynical side of their characters. In retrospect, it was so cliché as to be embarrassing. In retrospect, many things.
I left Haiti in mid-January, after All Hands had decided to extend the project into 2011, not expecting to return. A plane ticket purchased for me from someone in London needed to be followed up on, and upon my arrival back to New York from the UK, I hopped a plane to California and three months in Los Angeles being with family and handling obligations. It was a raw period, the post-Haiti whiplash melding with a sense of uncertainty of what was to come and a general distaste for the culture around me. I spent it working at a cheap Vietnamese restaurant as equal parts server, cashier, dishwasher, and social media consultant, a throwback to my previous career in Silicon Valley. I wrote letters, and enjoyed time with my brother and his dog, and my close friend Mike. I had an entirely deplorable relationship with a taken woman, and I didn’t care. I researched implementing a project similar to the one I helped run in Haiti in Nicaragua, an unrealistic idea born of some last-minute bonding between three friends in Leogane that fell apart as soon as we left Haiti. More than anything, I struggled with the feeling that I had failed to accomplish what I had set out to accomplish by going to Haiti to begin with. I wasn’t entirely sure what that was, only that I’d left before it had the chance to happen. So, when Paddy wrote me in May 2011 to let me know that All Hands had asked him to come back to the project and reboot the program that I was involved with before, and asked me to do it with him, I went.
My return trip to Haiti was of an entirely different nature than the first. The drive through Port-au-Prince held no shock, and there was evidence of progress being made. The highway divide shelters where I’d seen the woman bathing the infant were gone, but many other thrown together tent cities remained, now tattered and sagging under a year and a half of sun, wind and rain. It had been a long time since the earthquake. Stepping back into the base revealed a place with a different character, where more complicated programs were being designed and implemented by an increasingly veteran and capable team, of which I was a more integral part having moved from volunteer to staff. My mandate – running the field operations of a program helping to provide clean water to families at risk for cholera through the construction and distribution of biosand water filters – was multi-faceted and nuanced, and far more demanding. I worked more directly with local people, including a large local staff hired and managed by Paddy and myself. Near every night found the two of us on the roof outside his tent, smoking Comme Il Faut’s, Haiti’s local brand, reviewing what we’d done, and what we had yet to do. In short, if my first seven months in Haiti were an experiment in voluntourism, this was an experiment in real aid work. It proved to be a double-edged sword.
“Fucking hell.” Paddy’s just come back from a walk to go get some sodas. It’s a five minute endeavor, but now, thirteen months after we both returned to Haiti to run our program, five minutes can feel much, much longer. “I’m done. I’m fucking done.” He is too. We both are. The way we express it varies from day to day as we go about trying to wrap up everything – the last two international All Hands staff still in the country – but there is no denying we have to go. Beyond the fatigue, which has become chronic, lies the deeper problem: an ever-growing disillusion with the country, and with what we set out here to do, and, on paper anyway, succeeded in doing. “Every god damn time…” It’s another story of a very common experience for us now: an open hostility toward us, from strangers, for the simple fact that we are blans (Haiti’s term for foreigners). In this particular instance, a few guys demanded that Paddy give them his sodas, and his money, because “that’s what you’re supposed to do.” When he refused them, they took it personally, and vocally, and in crowds there is always tension. We’ve been lucky insofar as we’ve never been direct victims of physical aggression, but the undercurrent is always there. Shouts from strangers - “Hey, fuck you!” - come often now. They didn’t before, or maybe we just never noticed them. Becoming conversationally fluent in Kreyol has been both a blessing and a curse. The children are excusable when they shout at us, and tend to laugh and scatter should Paddy and I ever decide to confront them to ask them where they’d learned such phrases, but the young men are something else. There are moments where violence seems just there. For the first time in my life there is a certain desire to be a part of it should it come to the surface. Elements of my character have fundamentally changed. The evidence sometimes surprises me. There is a self-destructiveness, a recklessness, that wasn’t there before.
We’ve left Belval Plaza by now, having first moved to a private home with a small core staff of internationals once the volunteer side of the project ended in December 2011, and then moved again to another base run by an organization All Hands has had a long history with and who agreed to house the very few of us still in the country. By the end of April, only the staff for our program remain – myself, Paddy, Billy, a young man from Oklahoma who has been overseeing the production side of things for six months and proven to be an invaluable part of the team, and a selected group of our local employees. Before too long, Billy returns Stateside, and it’s the two of us. We’ve come a long way in many respects, creating and implementing a program that has drawn attention of larger NGOs and the UN, and resulted in partnerships with some of them to extend our scope into other communities. We’ve found a local NGO to hand over our program to once All Hands officially ends all activity in Haiti on June 30th. We’ve far exceeded our original mandate, and been praised as having done something very few higher ups within the organization thought was within our capacity. Our local team, with a few exceptions, have shown incredible talent and commitment to the work, and have become far more than employees. Indeed, many of them I’ve come to count as close friends. And yet, ours was not a feeling of success.
A few months earlier, in April, after a late night conversation at the house with Paddy and Alejandro, our boss and one of us who had been in Haiti the longest, I retired to my bedroom, swerving from the rum, and wrote an entry on my blog. It was an entry I’d tried to write numerous times before, and couldn’t, but in that moment the combination of the conversation, the booze, and the determination to put into words whatever came, damned if they be damning, resulted in a piece that resonated with aid workers and was shared across the aid blogosphere. It was, in effect, my attempt at trying to come clean with myself about what, in fact, this entire experience had been. It was rambling, disjointed, and somewhat incoherent, putting forth far more questions than answers, and, in that, a very authentic representation of myself at the time. In it, I highlighted six things that Haiti had taught me:
- Good intentions aren’t enough.
- Rose-colored glasses are bullshit.
- The white savior industrial complex is real, demonstrated daily by feel good aid programs that probably don’t work, or feel good causes like Kony 2012 that generate plenty of buzz but don’t add up to much when people are actually supposed to do something.
- You can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves.
- True altruism is an incredibly rare thing.
- Little victories must be celebrated if you want to protect yourself from the crippling effects of the larger failure.
The truth is, my time in Haiti is less a story of events than it is of an ever-changing process of feeling. From the initial shock and fascination to a sense of euphoria and unquestioned purpose that began to give way under questions based on deeper observation and ultimately led to a state of confused, proud, exhausted uncertainty in most everything, Haiti broke me down. It also humanized me, which is, by definition, painful, because it requires you to bear witness to the suffering of others. In hindsight, it is also what I realized I had set out to try and find to begin with. There is something deeply humbling about coming face to face with your own powerlessness in the presence of such overwhelming depravity, and that takes many forms. It became routine in Haiti to watch friends and professional acquaintances change because of Haiti’s influence: some had an emotional collapse, others a slow burn-out, others a deep and cynical disconnect, and others still a seemingly endless, almost unreasonable positivity. Most left the country in much the same way I did: confused, raw, and utterly exhausted.
A natural human instinct when faced with something deemed to be wrong or broken is to try and understand why so as to be able to make it right or fix it. In the context of a place like Haiti, whose problems are so deep-rooted and multi-faceted as to be almost incomprehensible, this drive toward understanding is circuitous, contradictory, and ultimately, self-reflective, and that’s where the crisis happens. To be an aid worker in Haiti for any substantial length of time results in realizing the sad but unavoidable fact that aid in Haiti is broken, and that, as an aid worker, you are both a cause of the problem and a part of its would-be solution. The contradictions can be torturous in that they become personal: a heartfelt thank you from a woman who no longer fears cholera juxtaposed against the question of why she has to drink from a river to begin with. Was it wrong to give her a filter? Is that just playing into the dependency of the country, cutting people off at the knees when they might otherwise find a way to stand? I found myself asking questions like these often, the answers elusive and not entirely convincing.
This much I can say: I helped people in Haiti, in the immediate sense of the word. If properly cared for, the filters we provided rural families in areas that had little or no access to potable water will keep them safe from cholera and other waterborne diseases for many years. The jobs we created for our local staff kept them fed and housed, and for some of them, kept their children in school. The slabs we cleared were often reclaimed, and new homes built on them. But, in the long view, I have a hard time believing I accomplished anything akin to real change, because I was part of a system designed to combat the symptoms of Haiti’s illness, not the root causes. That isn’t entirely the fault of aid. In many respects, I’ve come to believe that aid can truly ever just be a band-aid for people in desperate and optionless situations. Terms like “development” and “sustainability” and “capacity building” are central to the aid lexicon, but for me come summer 2012, they rang hollow, because such terms imply an inherent independent capability that is fundamentally contradictory to the notion that “we”, the outsiders, can provide that. “We” cannot fix Haiti, and to think as much is a nod to the Western ego. Only Haiti can fix Haiti. But to simply accept that as an excuse to wipe our hands clean of the whole thing and bid Haiti best of luck is wrong, because “we” are not blameless in Haiti’s miseries. Far from it.
Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American writer, sparked interest in March of this year when he tweeted about the so-called “white savior industrial complex”. He wrote, “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening… The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” His statements resonated with me, and helped me realize that I had played right into it. This was an experience first and foremost about me: my desire to scratch an itch, my feeling of exceptionalism for coming to do the work, my stories, my sense of purpose. And yet, interestingly and perhaps in counter to Mr. Cole’s statements, I’ve come to realize that that’s not a wrong thing. Indeed, self-realization, which is what Haiti was my attempt at finding, is the gateway to happiness, and being truly engaged in living. And for many aid workers, trying to help people is their method of self-realization. That is a good thing. I’ll take an aid worker over a politician ten times out of ten. It isn’t the aid workers supporting the brutal policies Mr. Cole correctly brings to light.
That said, aid and aid workers could benefit from some serious self-reflection. Too often in Haiti I saw badly designed and executed projects that could do more harm than good. Abandoned, over-flowing latrines exposed people living in camps to the threat of disease long after the NGO that built them had left the country, never having a plan for what to do with the waste. Leogane is susceptible to flooding, exacerbating the problem further. At a meeting held at UN OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), a woman representing a major NGO arrived late and with only one purpose: to find out where she could distribute over a million Aquatabs (water treatment tablets). When told that the World Health Organization had recommended that distributions of Aquatabs be halted given they could have negative health effects if used for too long, she defiantly made it clear that, one way or another, she was distributing her supply, her donors demanded it. Is it realistic to expect that a system dependent on and answerable to donors to continue to exist can ever realistically put the needs of those it is attempting to help above all else? It can work, but only if donors let capable aid agencies do what they are designed to do, because many donors don’t get their fingernails dirty, and do not understand the realities on the ground. Indeed, many donors don’t seem to care about the intricacies at all, acting much like the woman who came to our base representing a donor and asked only to be taken to “where the poor kids are” so she could take photos with them for a newsletter before driving back to Port-au-Prince and flying home. NGOs and the many talented and specialized employees they employ should not have to dance to the beat of the donor drum.
However, NGOs themselves should know their limitations, and question their motives. Haiti has a nickname – The Republic of NGOs – and spending any time in the country makes it painfully clear how appropriate that nickname is. Everywhere are branded vehicles: UNICEF, Red Cross, Caritas, CARE, UNDP, USAID, MSF. The list goes on (and on, and on, and on). And yet, historically, more keep coming. Why? Is there really the need for yet another organization working to give clean water, or provide medical care, or support education? Probably not. Haiti is a small country. You’d be hard pressed to find places NGOs aren’t. Is it not wiser to identify those NGOs already engrained in the communities and proving to be effective and legitimate in the eyes of the people they are aiming to help, and support them to expand their scope rather then set up shop alongside them and potentially disrupt their work? It’s a matter of priorities. Often times, it seems NGOs, like their donors, put themselves before their purpose. It is a competition born of the feeling of a “right” to be able to help.
Another result of so many players is that aid can often overlap, with communities receiving different and often counterproductive “solutions”. It was frustrating to return to areas we’d given filters to months prior to find many not being used and being told that it was easier to just use the Aquatabs that were now being distributed weekly by another NGO (our friend from the UN meeting perhaps?) who hadn’t bothered to find out, or didn’t care, that an existing solution was in place. To state that aid can be wasteful and redundant is a gross understatement. Furthermore, many NGOs seem happy to arrive in the country with outside, pre-determined solutions that may not be culturally viable, or that are implemented incorrectly. Too few bother to design solutions born of local knowledge. Building blocks made of compacted plastic and Styrofoam waste (of which there is plenty in Haiti) sound like an excellent idea, as long as people are willing to live in homes made from trash. Many aren’t, and that has nothing to do with the technology, and everything to do with culture.
Indeed, if I could go back and change my own program, I would only have done it to begin with if given the go-ahead to set up a satellite program in a very rural, inaccessible community with far greater need. The simple truth is, most people in Leogane don’t need biosand filters. For every community we found where people were drinking from rivers, we found twenty more that had access to reliable, relatively safe hand-pumps. By the time our program ended, some of those river communities had received new hand pumps themselves. It isn’t to say that people didn’t benefit from our work, but the impact could have been greater if focused where people had few if any safe options. Aid for aid’s sake is tempting, because aid feels good, and is easy to defend, but it defeats the purpose.
It doesn’t end with aid though. To suggest it alone is the cause and continuation of Haiti’s problems is to make a blanket statement that is, in no uncertain terms, wrong. To put it bluntly, Haiti and her people have a large role to play in their own misery. This is a controversial suggestion within the context of humanitarianism, which often paints people as victims and powerless and therefore faultless (which is both untrue and deeply disrespectful), but without people empowering themselves through recognition of their own role to play in their lives, the flaunted ideals of development and sustainability are entirely meaningless. What began to take shape for me as I spent month after month in the field - in communities, in homes, in churches and local committee meetings – is that many local people (but not all) had seemingly little interest in actively working to improve their situations. This isn’t a Haitian characteristic, it is a human characteristic, but in a place of such exposed failings, it was hard to swallow. A deep and troubling societal ill made itself known to me as my Kreyol improved and I could better understand conversations between myself (and my team) and local people, and between local people themselves. It revealed a mindset that began eroding my ability and desire to want to continue to try and help, a mindset that asked, “Why help myself when I know someone else will do it for me?” Aid has become so embedded in Haitian society that it has created a monster: dependence expressed as expectance. It is everywhere. It is the reason the men took offense when Paddy refused to give them his sodas and his money. It is the reason kazaks (local community leaders) would shortcut most every meeting with me and ask straight out, “OK, but what are you going to give us?” or in their more shameless moments, “OK, but what are you to give me?” It became personal after I left Haiti the first time, with people I considered friends making up stories about sick mothers or car accidents to try and get me to send money. It was hard to find myself questioning someone professing to be in true and dire need - it isn’t in my character - but it was something I did more and more as time passed.
Is that dependence and expectance the result of decades of poorly executed aid work? A strong case could be made that it is, but to me, the cause is far less important than the effect, and pointing fingers is an exercise in self-defensive futility. Ultimately, accountability for a life comes from those doing the living, and until more local people take it upon themselves to make the effort needed to truly begin to grow and expand their own capacities, to shed the label of “beneficiary” and reclaim the rightful title of “human being”, imperfect and troublesome as that title is, then Haiti will never rise, and many international actors will never treat Haiti as anything more than broken. Haitians know this, with some often expressing more frustration with their own people than with aid workers or the aid system. During an interview I did for NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” about the experience of being an aid worker in Haiti, Jean Claude, a Haitian psychotherapist living in the States who frequently returned to Haiti, expressed this frustration pretty clearly: “I find it to be consistent all across the country, that a lot of my fellow Haitians are more interested in asking for a dollar instead of working for that dollar." To suggest such a thing as a non-Haitian, however, is prickly. Many of the most hostile comments I got in response to the blog entry where I first placed some accountability on Haitians themselves were from Haitians, some of them from Leogane and professing to know me, and who called me a spoiled white idiot, a faggot, and a racist. Is it possible that I’m being insensitive and grossly oversimplifying a problem I may not truly understand given I am neither Haitian nor a veteran aid worker? Most certainly. Is resorting to calling me a racist or faggot an act of deflection aimed at avoiding deeper, uncomfortable self-reflection? Probably.
It wasn’t uncommon in conversations had amongst aid workers in Haiti that the best thing to do would be to just leave the country all together. All of us. The entire system. No more aid. No more programs, no more financial support, no more imports. Just let Haiti figure itself out. It is hard to deny the attractiveness of the proposal given its simplicity, and its allowing all of us to just wash our hands of the place with a resigned (or is that relieved?) sigh of, “Well, we tried.” It’s also a completely terrible idea. If all aid were to leave Haiti, many countless people would die. The country simply cannot support itself in its present state. Haiti’s government is ineffectual at best, and predatory at worst. Haiti’s security infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle violence without the support of MINUSTAH, the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the country. Haiti’s natural environment is severely compromised, with deforestation and top-soil run-off making bountiful, productive farming that can support Haiti’s booming population an impossibility. And yet, I’ve been guilty of throwing out the “Fuck it.” solution myself, the result of frustration trumping compassion.
The other reason it would be wrong to pull all aid from Haiti is because Haiti isn’t and has never been a country free to try and advance itself without the tampering of outside players. Us. Since overthrowing French colonial rule, resulting in the first black-led republic in the world born of the first truly successful slave rebellion, Haitians have been continuously undermined and kept down by the West – the United States and France in particular. Saddled with a crushing debt by the French in the early 1800s, imposed to remedy the loss of France’s men and colony, it was a sum Haiti could never hope to pay if it also hoped to care for its own people and strengthen its state capacity. It is also absurd to demand a people that had enriched France beyond measure (Haiti was their most profitable colony, and their most brutal) should have to pay for the privilege of ending their own subjugation. However, that wasn’t the dominant view at the time, and the debt imposed by France laid the foundation for the gross underdevelopment in the country today.
The United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, under the banner of restoring peace after a series of violent coups, but actually working to maintain US economic domination over the country as well as replace its existing Constitution, which forbid foreign ownership of Haitian land. Haiti’s two most famous and destructive dictators – Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude – were grudgingly propped up by the US as a political counter to Cuba’s Castro and the feared spread of communism. In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Artistide, a Haitian priest raised in poverty, became the first democratically elected president in Haiti’s history, winning by a large majority. In 1991 he was forced into exile as a result of a military coup with ties to the Bush presidency, who feared the ramifications of a populist president working in opposition to the traditional elites that had ruled Haiti. Again in 2000, Aristide was reelected, and again, in 2004, overthrown in a coup with ties to the then second Bush presidency.
The history is long, and this is not the place (nor am I the person) to attempt to make sense of it all, other than to say something I believe is of critical importance: Haiti is a mess largely because powerful players have a vested interest in keeping it a mess. The brutal policies Teju Cole highlighted in his series of tweets are real, imposed both within the country by predatory elites, and from outside the country by those with something to gain. Given this, is it not entirely wrong to suggest Haiti just needs to “figure it out”, as if the abandonment of aid in the country would also free it from other, more malevolent outside influences? For me, it became a dilemma, one in which I often asked myself if it wouldn’t be better to focus my attentions not on Haiti, but on the US - my own country - and work to combat the policies and actions created within it that have terrible implications for people in other parts of the world. If aid truly is just a band-aid, and root causes cannot be addressed through aid, isn’t continuing to focus on it rather than on the source tantamount to acknowledging the ultimate futility of the whole process? Is being an awakened aid worker who stays in aid anyway a betrayal of the morals and ideologies that we profess to be central to who we are and why we do what we do? Again, many questions, few answers.
Paddy left Haiti July 1st, 2012. What I imagined to be a powerful closing moment at the airport between two close friends who had together gone through one of the most defining experiences in our lives was anything but. A quick nod, a heft of his bag, and he was gone. In some ways, it was perfect. No words necessary. Three weeks later, after a short consulting gig with a larger NGO, I followed him – the final one of us to go. It was a rushed exit, the result of a last minute itinerary change so that I could get to New York and sort out visa issues in preparation for the coming academic year in London. There were many people I did not get to say goodbye to. There were many last minute phone calls. Standing outside the office in Port-au-Prince during my final hours in the country, talking on the phone to my now ex-employees, and my local friends, was both painful and deeply rewarding. I placed faith in what they told me – that they respected me, and were grateful for the chance to create what we created together. That they were proud of the work they accomplished. That they were going to miss me, and demanded I return to visit, that I’d have a place to stay. There was as much laughter as there was sadness. It meant something.
The most difficult call to make was entirely one-sided - me talking to a voice mail service, saying my goodbyes to Wadson, a young man from a very poor background, a father and a husband, who had volunteered to help us when we brought filters to his community, and proved to be incredibly dedicated and capable. It was with deep disappointment that, months later, I had to fire him from the part-time position created specifically for him because I discovered he was lying about having done the work we expected him to do. He left the base in tears, and I hadn’t spoken to him in since. But, in those closing moments of Haiti, I realized Wadson was, in many respects, a perfect representation of the greater Haiti experience – promising, capable, and flawed. In saying my goodbye to him, I was saying my goodbye to all of it: the beauty turned ugly, the euphoria turned disillusion, the certainty turned doubt. In telling Wadson that, regardless of his mistake, I valued him and what he did to help our team, and that he should be proud of that, and remember it, I was as much talking to myself as I was to him. He remained in my thoughts as I stepped into the plane and, head once again against a window, watched Port-au-Prince as it shrank away.
It has been almost four months since I left Haiti. In that time I’ve bounced from the Americas to Europe to Asia and finally settled in London, where I’m now pursuing a Master’s degree. To say it has been one of the most challenging periods in my life would not be an overstatement. Haiti succeeded in doing what I hoped it might do: break me down, leaving me unsure of many things I took as certain before I went. It humanized me, and set in motion my push toward self-realization. It isn’t a process I’ve yet completed. Pieces of myself are exposed that were not before, but remain silent on how they want to be put back together.
Since arriving in London in mid-September, I’ve spent most of my time alone. It isn’t that I don’t want to be with people, it’s that I don’t really remember how to be with people. Conversations can feel awkward, and are largely avoided. A close friend of mine who spent a year in Haiti and left shortly after I did to return home to Portland wrote me recently sharing that she feels as if she’s forgotten how to make friends. She talked about the combination of ADD, anxiety and reality distortion that overwhelmed her when she first went post-Haiti clothes shopping at a Nordstrom. She had to leave the store. This is an experience we share – my first visit to a Primark to buy a few cold weather items resulted in my walking out empty-handed within minutes to simply escape the place. A Friday night out to Shoreditch, one of London’s trendier neighborhoods, found me standing in total discomfort in the middle of a packed bar as people whirled around me, drinking and laughing and loud. “You OK hun?” the friend I was with asked. I didn’t have to explain. I met her in Haiti in 2010, and she’d done work in Ghana before that. We ended up in a quiet place, at a table for two.
The result of so much time alone is obvious: an internal dialogue unlike any I’ve had before. Every day I spend hours in silent conversation with myself. Unlike the first month after I left Haiti, where I thought very little of the country, I now reflect on it constantly. On the contradictions, on the work, on the people I know there and care about, of their present and their future. Some days I get out of my head and call Jenny, a whipsmart eighteen year old who’s family I was very close to, and smile when she tells me that she’s first in her class and recently been elected class president. When I first met her she was sixteen and working outside Belval Plaza trying to sell cheap tourist trinkets to the volunteers. She wasn’t in school. She tells me Hurricane Sandy hit Leogane pretty badly, but that she and Ornela and Madam Michelle, her little sister and her mom, are fine. She tells me she misses me, and to come and visit her. I know I will, but don’t know when. I talk to James on Facebook, now back in Gonaives. He tells me it’s tough. He’s out of work. He’s thinking about going to the Dominican Republic again, or maybe Guadalupe. He doesn’t feel he has many options in Haiti. I talk to Fatal, one of our best employees, a family man in his thirties with two newborns (one biological, the other adopted after being abandoned) who recently faced eviction because he can’t find work. Many disaster response programs in Haiti are finishing, the jobs going with them. The earthquake was a long time ago. I feel obligated to help, but know it amounts to very little. Band aids, still.
And yet, band aids or not, something interesting is at play now: my conviction for the work is growing, not diminishing. My dedication to humanitarianism is strengthening, not weakening. My degree program, focused on conflict and development, is, like Haiti, creating more questions than answers in me, and yet inspires me for the fact that the answers are there to be found. Despite the whiplash, and the discomfort it has brought, I have a growing trust in the fact that I’ve aligned myself with something that is important, imperfect, and needs to be done.
In those rare moments where I do talk to people about Haiti, and the contradictions and frustrations and confusion that came of my time there, a question I often get in response is why? Why do it at all, if it is so broken? It’s the wrong question entirely.
The most powerful experience I had in Haiti happened in October 2011, when a baby girl, orphaned, severely malnourished, and HIV positive, was dropped off at an organization a friend of mine was working for. Deemed too far gone by doctors and hospitals, the orphanage that had been housing her had given up too, and didn’t want to waste their very limited resources on her. Over the course of a few days, Miguerline, over a year old but the size of an infant, was cared for by my friend with a dedication and sweetness that was beautiful to watch. The little girl rallied at first, even began eating semi-solid foods and managing a few giggles where before there were moans, but it was not to last. On October 16th, in the late hours of the evening, she died. It was a horrible death to bear witness to: vomit and feces and rubber gloves to protect from the virus, needles and backslapping, and the rhythmic moaning returned, and growing ever fainter. By the time her jaw gave three short jerks before the final exhale, I was numb, and set about trying to build a coffin from semi-rotting plywood so she would not have to be returned to the orphanage in a suitcase, like the child before her had been. We left her outside on the porch, the staff so accustomed to this as to be almost indifferent. Miguerline was one more dead child in a country of countless dead children.
The question isn’t why. The question is how. How can this be allowed to happen? How can a little girl in a country but a stone’s throw away from the world’s richest and most powerful nation be allowed to die like that? That is wrong, and rationalizing it doesn’t change that. Miguerline’s life was challenging, but her death could have been avoided with basic nutrition and HIV medication. If Miguerline had been American, she probably would have lived. Miguerline wasn’t a priority. Somewhere else a judgment call was made about her life, by people who never knew her, and she came up short.
And therein lies my reason for remaining committed. What happened to Miguerline should not have happened. It happens all the time. The world’s bottom billion suffer immeasurably so that the world’s top billion can enjoy themselves. The system, as it stands now, is stacked so unforgivingly against so many that to allow it to remain is to reject those qualities that make us human beings. Do we really want to engage our small, crowded and ever more connected world with the basest aspects of ourselves? Is that what we aspire to? Do we accept the suffering of others? Do we accept the suffering of others if it is within our power to try and end it? That’s it really. That’s all of it. If your answer is no, than you’re no different than me, and I’m no different than most, because I know that if asked that question, the vast majority of us would respond with a collective and decisive no. It’s a no worth honoring. It’s a no worth honoring despite the endless yeses that can be used to counter it.
Is aid largely broken? Yes. Is it designed to address symptoms, not causes? Yes. Can it hurt and disempower the people it is trying to help? Yes. Is it possible it needs to be redesigned from the ground up? Yes. Is it tempting to write it off given the complexity of doing that? Yes. Should we? No. No, we should not.
Paul Collier, a respected British economist, gave a talk in February 2008 in which he championed working to address the plight of the bottom billion, with aid playing a key role. He closed it with self-deprecating humor, highlighting a comment made about him that said he was not a charismatic man, but his message was compelling. I couldn’t help but laugh, the meaning of his quip not lost.
Aid is not charismatic. It can be to untrained eyes, but under the feel-good exterior lies a much uglier core that, once revealed, makes itself very hard to like, but even harder to walk away from. No, aid is not charismatic, but it is compelling, because it represents a desire to manifest the best of ourselves: a powerful, affirming, awakened engagement with one another that comes from the marriage of human ingenuity to human compassion. In a sea of questions, that is the anchor that might just lead to an answer.