Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Helping Haiti?

Here we are, two very Caucasian Americans who have moved to Port-au-Prince for 3 years. Why are we here? Recently we've gotten some messages that have made us uneasy and it seems time to explain what WE think we're doing here.

First of all, we are not here because we think we can help anyone. We don't have anything to offer Haiti that Haitians don't, and don't buy into the idea that as non-Haitians we have the ability to "develop" Haiti. Through the approach that MCC takes to development, Ben and I are both seconded (ie. partnered) with Haitian organizations. We work for and with Haitians that have the desire and capacity to do development work and human rights advocacy without any help from us. (After all, my coworkers are lawyers, human rights specialists and activists - and all far more qualified than I am). We view our work here as more of a partnership. We are here to form relationships, build bridges and work alongside our Haitian coworkers. We are here with the desire to be transformed and learn to view the world in a new and less ethno-centric way.

"Development" in Haiti (as in most parts of the world) is complex. It would be difficult to overestimate how MUCH need there is here. And yet unfortunately much of that is a result of a dependency on North America that we've helped to create here. There's no lack of church groups and organizations here handing out food and blankets and soap. There's a dualism here: Haitians both want what they think "white people" are here to give them, and they resent us for being here at all. A number of people that we've talked to believe that Haiti's proximity to the U.S. (and therefore inevitable mission's trip destination) is one of the reasons that Haiti's economic condition is what it is. There's a difference, even in attitude, between enabling and empowering.

That said, we still think that disaster relief is a very appropriate outlet for giving people things (material aid). In an emergency (say, after the four consecutive hurricanes that hit Haiti this summer), people NEED HELP. Haitians needed (and still need) emergency relief in Gonaives after Hurricanes Fay, Gustave, Hanna and Ike.

We do wonder sometimes if it wouldn't be better for us not to be here. Are we contributing to the dependency that development work has fostered throughout the world: Global North = givers; Global South = receivers? The only justification I have for our presence here - and this doesn't always hold up under my mental scrutiny - is the idea that we are partnering with Haitians in their work for the development of their country. In my mind this is maybe how our mandate as followers of Christ fits into the model of sustainable development.

The last thing I want to do is offend anyone with my comments. I'm just trying to make some space for all of us to think about these complex issues. Thoughts or observations?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Christmas, It's not your birthday

With one thousand dollars you can sponsor one of these families for an 18-month program to ease them out of extreme poverty. click here for more information
I posted this multimedia before, but I just added some pictures and some drumming and thought I'd re-post it. Also I'm not sick anymore.

-Ben from Lexi's account


There is a system here holding 250,000 children in slavery. It happens that parents in the countryside have too many mouths to feed, so they send a child to a distant relative in the city or to a friend or an agent who promises that the children will be taken care of and sent to school. The children provide live-in labor for the families they live with, are not sent to school, are often abused, overworked and treated like animals. These children are called Restaveks.
I met an 8-year old girl recently who had been a Restavek. Her mother wanted to join the Fonkoze program that I work for and Fonkoze required that she and her husband retrieve their daughter from the city in order to join the program.
The mother died and the family is still receiving aid from Fonkoze because the program is 18-months long. This little girl technically inherited the responsibility and assets of her mother's business in the Fonkoze program because she is now the only woman in the family. I met her father recently and he said that his 8-year-old daughter is too much trouble: “she is always wandering away and I don’t know where she is…I can’t handle her.” So when the program is over in December he is sending her back to the city to work.
This is a systemic issue that is rooted in people's economic conditions. It’s really a poverty issue and it's argued that if extreme poverty is alleviated, people will be able to feed their families and stop sending their children away. After slavery ended here, there continued to be a small light-skinned elite that controlled the country's wealth and this is still the case. There is a strong class system in place with poor children very much at the bottom.
The human rights organization that Alexis works for recently moderated a panel discussion on the Restavek system. It was well-publicized, got a lot of media attention (Alexis was even on TV) and was followed on Thursday, Int'l Children Rights Day, by a solidarity march through the city that ended with protests in front of the Prime Minister's office. Haiti's history of political freedom is short and we all know that drawing attention to issues through peaceful protest can be the beginning of lasting change.
It wasn't that long ago that we used children similarly in the US. Check out these photos by Lewis Hine. It is something that can change.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Deadly School Collapse in Haiti"

We've been asked by a number of people at home whether or not we're near (or have seen) the 5-story school that collapsed in Petionville on Friday. Although we don't live nearby, the whole city is grieving. People are really angry about what happened and seem to be trying to decide who to blame. Part of the tragedy is that the school's owner, a protestant preacher, has been ignoring complaints from neighbors for years that the building was unstable. As far as I understand, the UN and Red Cross are still uncovering victims.

Here's a link to an AP story about the collapse: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27595445/

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Finding Life

We went to a young people's art exhibit last week and were struck by Haitian students' perceptions of Haiti and what it means to be Haitian: Images of death, violence, brokenness, environmental degradation, the scales of arbitrary justice, the fist... Haitian young people have a lot to be angry about. In spite of a fierce national pride, most of the young people that we've met don't think that Haiti has anything to offer in terms of a future. The statistics are certainly not in their favor: more than 2/3 of the population is not formally employed, 80% under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty, extensive deforestation and soil erosion, inadequate infrastructure and supplies of potable water, rapidly rising prices of basic commodities... the list goes on and on. You probably see it in the news.
Sometimes it seems like we've successfully pillaged and bled this country until there is almost nothing left. But even while these pieces depict the tragedy of Haiti's history, they are also full of the contrasting images of peace, community, creativity hope and strength: the dove, the mermaid, creation, the human heart and body... Haiti is teaching me to see beyond the hopeless statistics and see LIFE. I am constantly being reminded here that life and beauty overcome, even in the face of some of the most systemic and categorical injustices imaginable.

To see more from this amazing exhibit:

- Lexi from Ben's account

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

juicy piece of gossip

So we thought that we lived next door to the president of the Haitian Red Cross... Although it seemed odd to us that the president of the Haitian RC had guards with shotguns and constant motorcades coming in and out. And also that our landlord mentioned needing to be careful who he rented our apartment to since it overlooks her house. The occasional secret police posted at the end of the street (that won't let anyone by that they don't recognize) and the fancy tinted-windows SUV outside her gate with its motor running at all hours of the night are a few other indicators. WELL, come to find out from our landlady that our neighbor is RP's girlfriend*. I use his initials for the sake of discretion, but you don't have to delve very far into Haitian politics to figure out who "RP" is. That's right! I definitely find myself peering out the window whenever a car pulls up outside now.

*I told a coworker this and she said, "you mean one of his girlfriends."If the president can publicly have multiple girlfriends, it's no wonder that the girl that cleans for us once a week thought that Ben might be interested in a discreet extra-marital affair!


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