Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Haiti and the fantasy job market

In the immediate aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, I participated in a very cool volunteer program. A phone company had set up an emergency hotline, to which people could send free text messages communicating their location and their needs. Volunteers then translated the messages from Kreyol into English, and this way emergency responders could know where there were urgent needs for certain things (food, medicine, water, tarps, etc.). I was one of the volunteers translating from Kreyol to English. I have to assume that many of the calls for help that I translated were never responded to. There would be thousands of similar requests: "I'm in such and such a place. I'm hungry. There are many children here too. We need medical help". Knowing where one such request was coming from wouldn't be too helpful when emergency responders could have simply walked out on the street and encountered pressing need wherever they turned. Furthermore, we see that more than 6 months after the quake, many basic needs are still not being met!

This experience of translating text messages made me think about a lot of things. After the first few days and weeks, most people were not asking for food or water, but rather for jobs. This would make no sense to the emergency responders, but it was certainly a logical request. If you're offering me material aid, the best help would be to give me work. There were also people who wrote in offering their help as volunteers, or writing to thank some aid group, or even those who wanted to know European soccer scores. It was cool to see people's vitality, their insistence on a return to normalcy. But it was also distressing to see people asking the hotline for jobs, as if it were a magical oracle. It made sense though, as I imagine local people were kept in the dark as to how the service worked, and what it could and could not provide.

The whole magic oracle mentality was not some vestige of Vodou. It was mainly the urban, more professional classes that wrote begging for a job from the magic text message service. This confirmed a suspicion I've long had, that people in a post-agrarian economy are really the superstitious ones. Their livelihood depends not on real things they can create here and now, but on moving to the city, studying the same thing as thousands of others who will end up unemployed, praying someone will "give" them a job, sometimes even setting off for other countries. The Third World is filled with people who squander their scarce resources on "get-rich-quick" solutions like going to the capital city to study typing, or catching a boat to Miami, instead of investing those resources on the less glamorous but very real business opportunities in their immediate surroundings. In short, there's a whole class living in a fantasy world, meanwhile scorning the real world before them and hence losing any possibility of actually improving it. And it's not just Haiti--much of work culture in the US is founded on such delusions.

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