Saturday, July 23, 2011

Greg's Haitian adventure part 5: Haiti and development aid, plus a request for financial help

Haiti is not a place for foreigners to feel comfortable. If you don't look like a Haitian, then any time you go out on the street people will gawk at you, impudent children (and some truly idiotic adults) will call out at you as if beckoning an exotic animal, and basically most people refuse to treat you as a normal human being. I don't think it's because many people have never seen a foreigner before—with the ubiquitous presence of foreign NGOs and even UN troops, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Haitian, especially an urban Haitian, who doesn't see foreigners on a semi-regular basis. This means that the stupid, inconsiderate treatment of foreigners isn't then a result of absolute ignorance, but rather of an objectification and dehumanization of foreigners in the minds of the people who scream out to them (which is a type of partial ignorance whereby the ubiquity of foreigners doesn't provide a real knowledge of them or a real human exchange with locals). This goes both ways, with foreigners constantly making negative generalizations about Haitians, and generally distrusting them. In any case, it's an unpleasant aspect of life in a place I otherwise enjoy. Once you've broken the ice and established a more personal relationship with someone in Haiti, the interaction tends to become much more humanized, more natural. But the day-to-day anonymity of the city streets is often ugly, dehumanizing, and even hostile. Case in point a recent interaction when a local hood started yelling at me about a trash-strewn municipally-owned vacant lot in front of the factory I work for. It was trash-strewn because some dumbo had built his house right in the middle of a public drainage canal, which then diverted all the trash-laden water over the field. However, in the eyes of this aggressive young man, the factory had somehow messed up the field, an offense for which he emptily threatened to come and burn down the factory.

I've become inured to people yelling at me in the street, and I simply ignore them now, but one thing that continues to bug me is the occasional person who asks me for money. I'm not talking about destitute beggars, but about normal people standing on the street, working, or otherwise engaged, that spontaneously call out in Kreyol or bad English asking for a dollar. It's sort of a joke, but not that much. When little kids do this it especially bugs me—it speaks of an early conditioning (by parents, schools, media, foreigners?) to teach them that foreigners have money that they are for some reason wont to give to strangers, and implicitly that Haitians are universally poor and stingy. Again, I usually don't bother too much when an idiot asks me for money, or sometimes I'll offer him a dollar if he gives me 60 gourdes (the exchange rate is 40 gourdes to the dollar). But when a younger kid corners me and asks for money, or a soccer ball, or some other whimsy, I have a little pedagogic spiel I try to give him. I ask why he doesn't ask his neighbor or his parents for money. They usually respond that Haitians have no money. I ask who pays for their housing, their school, their food, their clothes—their (Haitian) family or a foreigner? Has a foreigner ever given them anything?

What I'm trying to get at is that I worry about a learned attitude that dismisses Haitian strength and production, and looks to the foreigner as a Messiah (which ultimately dehumanizes not just the begging, scraping Haitian, but also the foreigner, who becomes no longer a normal human). Of course Haiti is a poor country, and of course not many people are earning lots of excess cash. But even in a poor country like Haiti that receives a lot of external aid and remittances from abroad, the overwhelming majority of economic activity exclusively involves work by Haitians, transport by Haitians, marketing by Haitians, and purchase by Haitians. Whoever doesn't realize this devalues the role of Haitians in the survival and development of their society, and idealizes and exaggerates the role of foreigners, whose contribution is frankly paltry. For a Haitian to say that his friends, family, and neighbors have “no money” is not only untrue, it's also insulting to the hard work and integrity of those people to amass whatever money and resources they do have. Take this attitude to an extreme, and you might get something like the problematic situation Haiti's economy finds itself in today, whereby local production capacity is severely compromised, and everyone looks to bring goods in from abroad instead of making them locally. Apparently even Haiti's leaders believe that Haiti “has no money”, despite the work and commerce bustling around them.

This attitude of scorn for the hard work of everyday Haitians also ties into a trend of lazy youth searching for easy money. The other week we visited an amazing fish farm run since 1979 by a cooperative of old-timers, guys now in their 50s. They have weathered dictatorships, liberalization, and coups, to create a profitable, self-sufficient agribusiness venture (that incidentally relies little on purchased inputs and a lot on natural ecological processes).
They say visitors always ask worriedly why there are no younger members of the coop, but the problem is that many young men in their town don't want to work hard and get dirty to earn a decent wage. They would rather do nothing, look cool and nonchalant and be broke, hoping all the while for a big break to come along and make them a rap star or a drug kingpin or an emigrant to the US. It's similar to our all-or-nothing, easy money culture in the States, whereby many in our jobless masses refuse to do hard, low-wage work like farm labor, waiting around instead for American Idol to call and turn them into overnight stars.

This characterization of Haiti's youth is of course oversimplified; in the case of the fish farm, the more important part of the problem is that most youngsters can't afford to work free for the probationary period of four months or so before the coop allows them to partake in earnings from fish sales.

A contrasting example of the motivation and hard work ethic of Haitian youth comes from my professional experience here. I have spent the last month working with a group of young people in an agricultural training pilot project.

During the next five months they will implement a productive project (chicken-raising, compost production, etc.) based on the business plan and budget we've spent this month drafting together. By the end of the program each project group will have successfully carried out an economically viable agriculture-related project, and we will work with them to finance and accompany the implementation of a larger-scale project from which they can earn a sustainable living. We are searching for long-term funding to scale up the training program after this initial 6-month pilot phase, and it looks like we may have some promising leads for that.

But right now we need about $5000US to set up a rotating credit fund for students to buy the materials and inputs necessary for their projects (which they will hopefully reimburse at project's end), as well as $2500 for me to make two more visits to Haiti over the next few months as we continue to set up and solidify the program. If we get enough short-term funding we will even be able to incorporate around October a group of AIDS-affected youth (either infected themselves or living with infected family members) that is interested in participating in the pilot program.

Anyone interested in helping out with this project can contact me directly at my email address, which is [DELETED SINCE ORIGINAL POSTING]. I don't believe I've ever asked for money via this blog, but this is a cause that I really believe in.

Getting back to my rant about the Haitian work ethic, one theory of mine is that a long history of widespread abuse of Haiti by foreign powers, coupled with seemingly inexplicable largesse towards Haiti in the form of development aid, has totally screwed up the normal functions of work and earnings when it comes to interactions between Haitians and foreigners. In the first category, we have foreign entities compromising Haiti's economic sovereignty by imposing market liberalization, privatization of services, and the like. On a level that more directly touches normal Haitians, we have abusive foreign factory owners that don't pay the agreed wages, or find other ways of cheating workers, as well as presumably well-meaning development projects that either fall down halfway through, or are unclear on payment arrangements with the people that work in them. Many NGOs think of their work as a service or a gift to Haitians writ large, and so think nothing of demanding free work from individual Haitians. They are either explicit about this from the beginning, or sort of vague whenever Haitians ask about payment, or are so wary that Haitians are out to screw them that they renege on promised payment for services from Haitian workers. On the other hand, there are many examples of seeming generosity from foreigners, which are again inexplicable in light of the normal quid pro quo framework that operates in the rest of the world. Individual missionaries and aid workers sometimes give out money or candy or pencils to surprised passers-by. Often NGOs or big international projects come into a community and do a bunch of stuff for the people there, from digging wells to giving out medicine, and it's perhaps not clear to the beneficiaries why these foreigners are doing something for people they don't even know. NGOs are rarely clear as to whether it's the NGO that has all this money to give, or if they've gotten a grant from other organizations, or even if the Haitian government is funding the intervention.

All this means that the relationship between Haitians and foreigners is usually a drastic departure from the normal quid pro quo that operates in business or even friendship. Both groups find themselves out of the element of their other human interactions. One side offers something to the other, and it's unclear what the other owes in return. Likewise, sometimes one party takes from another, and you don't know if you just got stolen from or you did a favor or they'll pay you your quid shortly. I've focused on foreign-origin causes for this odd state of affairs, but by this point it's not clear to me who is creating this dynamic, and who is merely reacting to it (which ultimately further strengthens and expands the dynamic). Only in such a climate can terms like “cash for work” be thrown around without drawing a snicker. Cash for work is the novel idea that you hire people to do a job and then you pay them for it. To a normal human being anywhere else in the world, this is just called “work”, but in an aid-infused country like Haiti, where sometimes people get paid for doing nothing, and sometimes they work like a dog without pay, this is a new concept.

Recently I was talking with the peanut procurement staff at the factory that has hired me for this month, about our potential development impact. We are an odd mix between a productive company in Haiti that gets non-profit support from the US (at least while we're getting on our feet with capital expenditures etc.), and our ultimate goal is a similarly odd mix between an economically sound business model and positive effects on farmer livelihoods. Last night I arrived with a coworker at the conclusion that our development impact should be limited to whatever flows directly from our core business activities. We make a product that demands large amounts of high-quality peanuts. To get these peanuts from Haitian farmers (which is ultimately more stable and profitable than importing them), we work closely with farmer groups to implement new growing methods and to employ new ways of organizing their quality control and marketing. These farmer groups will benefit enormously from our work with them, which we have to do to get what we need. Hence there is a big development impact, without our creating specific side-projects to help Haiti's general development. No one is doing charity for anyone else, but both the factory and the farmers get something out of their interaction. I am not an absolute believer that the pursuit of individual self-interest will be enough to make life better for the collective, but in a country like Haiti where the concept of economic self-interest has been so adulterated by the odd culture of development aid, I think our factory's model can play a really interesting role.

The sentiments of frustration and misunderstanding with which I began this post bring me to a book I read recently, “Eyes of the Heart” by ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It is a sincere look at globalization from a Third World perspective, taking into account how the poor can survive in a globalizing world, as well as how their insights might shape globalization to make it more human and positive. It is a well-written book, with Aristide's typical language that sways between village simplicity and revolutionary theology. A cynic might snicker at Aristide's approach, or doubt the sincerity of a man that has been so extensively besmirched by (apparently unfounded) allegations of corruption and evil. But I have enjoyed the book, and even learned from it how it came to pass that Aristide and his successor allowed strong neoliberal influences on Haitian economic policy. More importantly, I read it at a moment when I was quickly tiring of seeming incongruities in daily Haitian life, and no longer seeking to understand the people around me. Aristide reminded me that sometimes we don't understand something not because it's stupid or irrational, but because our particular logic prevents us from learning about and comprehending the rational terms of another logic.

“Eyes of the Heart” contrasts strongly with another book I read this week, called “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs”, by Chuck Klosterman. This is a book of essays on US pop culture. It is well-written, and actually does arrive at some transcendental reflections gleaned from the silly ephemera of consumerist mass culture. Among them are his assertion that the pervasiveness of pop media has fundamentally altered how we live life, as now we use media references to gauge the authenticity of our own experiences (first kiss, getting drunk, heartbreak, road trips, etc.) instead of the other way around. As I bemoaned in a post a while ago, “The Breakfast Club” for me wasn't an idiosyncratic director's commentary to reflect on given my own real experience of high school. Instead, I saw the movie before high school, and subsequently gauged if I was really doing appropriate high-school-type stuff by how closely my real life followed the framework of that and other similar movies. Klosterman also analyzes how tribute bands and reality TV are more extreme manifestations of this postmodern mixup.

However, something that distressed me throughout was Klosterman's apparent remove from life. His attitude is totally opposed to that of Aristide, who seems to believe that life matters, that poverty is more than just another amusing cultural trope, that we must struggle to survive and improve the world. Klosterman comments on trends that I too have noticed, but instead of trying to change his life in reaction to his positive or negative perceptions of things, or even trying to change those things around him to hew more to what he believes in and values, he sits idly by as a snarky voice in the corner. It's as if his observation of life prevents his participation in it. He comments on positives and negatives of religion, but makes no adjustment in his life accordingly. He observes the flattening and stereotyping effect of mass media, but he almost revels in his participation in this nihilistic trend, as opposed to fighting against it. He seems bemusedly resigned to his never participating in a real love relationship. The only thing he seems sincere about and committed to is journalism, which he explains and defends in a strong essay. But otherwise his is a stance of cowardly apathy and non-participation in life. This attitude is something that used to drive me crazy about culture in the US, and is probably part of why I don't live there right now. I couldn't stand or understand how people could spend inordinate amounts of time doing things (watching bad TV, working a shitty job, engaging in casual, unfulfilling sex) that they themselves thought were stupid. People even seemed to take delight or at least entertainment at how vapid their lives were. From my post abroad I can long for a United States of summer barbecues, robust industry, political engagement, noble activism, progressive religiosity, and Christmas cheer, without having to listen to people talk about The View or what's-her-name Perry that fell on that cake or what's-his-name Weiner or that chick who killed her baby in Florida. In the words of System of a Down, all that is like violent pornography to me. I don't know about it, and I don't want to.

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