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Haiti: Aid Work Then and Now

While in Haiti during 2013, a Swedish aid worker told me she was warned to not travel home alone at night. There was a vodou spirit, a pig on a bike, that was known to chase lone women. The aid worker laughed and went home. Alone. Her blonde hair noticeable as she trekked back through the slums of Anse-à-Pitres under moonlight.

She was among many aid workers I met there. It was impossible not to draw contrasts between Haitians and non-natives as each side tried to resurrect the country from poverty, natural disasters and general disorder. I worked with a women’s NGO that focused on women’s microfinancing, health advice, support groups, schools and an orphanage.

Once, we were driving the children from the orphanage through the hot stop-and-go traffic of Port-au-Prince. With no air conditioning in the car, we had the windows rolled down.

I noticed a man walking through the traffic jam. He was making his way toward our stopped car.

He stood in front of the driver’s seat window. The white aid worker stared ahead as the car grew quiet. Even the kids hushed. He did seem angry.

I noticed that he was reaching into his pocket and–

Bang!

The white aid worker at the driver’s seat raised her hands immediately.

His green plastic gun–a water pistol–aimed at her.

“Stop stealing our children,” he yelled.

That moment was the embodiement of  tension between foreign aid workers and Haitians. It was unignorable: a deep misunderstanding–even hatred–between the West and most Haitians.

During an afternoon in Anse-à-Pitres, a small town that lies in the southeastern tip of the country, my project leader told me about the oral history of Haiti. She emphasized how the slave rebellion against French colonialism 200 years ago shaped the current pride of Haiti. Haitians, she told me, were banned from learning French, so the slaves invented Kreyòl. The creolization of their own language and religion, vodou, became emancipatory. The unifying language and religion tied disparate African tribes together under one “Haitian” identity in order to rebel. It is a pride, she said, that has never extinguished despite political upheaval, environmental disasters, poverty and epidemic, which still occur.

It was the Haitians’ stark combination of world-weariness and exuberance that I most noticed while being a teacher’s aide and assistant in Port-au-Prince and Anse-à-Pitres, Haiti. One had to acknowledge and respect that their vision for their country was essential in understanding how to best execute aid work. Their goals can set a resourceful and relevant roadmap for future aid. Their vision for success and stability has been alive since the rebellion occurred two centuries ago, and, unfortunately, it is a vision still hard fought.

I was there three years after the earthquake. $13 billion was pledged to Haiti post-earthquake, and 93% of the funds went to foreign aid agencies, like the United Nations. At that point, one would assume some sort of improvement in Haiti. Whether from the Clinton Foundation or Red Cross, it seemed every aid worker had convened in Haiti to make big things happen.

I recognized the opposite was true. It seemed nothing had happened.

No wonder, I realized, the man with the water pistol threatened us.

Aid Work Lost in Translation

I saw people using the sidewalk as a restroom: a woman crouched near a roadside wall in broad daylight. I saw children in perfect uniforms walking to school while others were in just a t-shirt doing housework. It was a constant struggle between accessing basic necessities and earning money. They were doing all of this with the burden of reconstructing an entire country.

Of the 10 million Haitians, 60,000 people still live in the post-quake camps. According to the International Organization for Migration, they estimate nearly 50 camps are still in Port-au-Prince.

Haiti hosts over 10,000 NGOs, which may or may not produce accountable and relevant aid work, and whose foreign workers compose an upper class. I remember having to walk between the high walls of two mansions to make my way up the mountain path to a post-quake displacement camp where the homes were tents or mere cinder blocks.

An insider from the Clinton Foundation reported how some aid workers’ arrogance and lack of knowledge of the native language caused disorganized aid. As I worked in Haiti, I recognized how the program I worked with tried to combat this issue. They have taken a more grassroots approach that includes more Haitians than foreigners.

The man with the toy gun reminded me I am a visitor in his country. I should not overstep my boundaries or overstay my welcome. I struggled daily to strike a fine balance.

I would take to observing. Since the earthquake, Haitians organised their own recovery in displacement camps, which they largely created themselves. The camps have established themselves as new communities. Haitians continue to march on despite insurmountable setbacks incurred by either unhelpful aides or failed governance.

Through the projects I witnessed, women engaged in reforestation, textiles, farming and more. This taught me the most significant lesson for aid workers: give the initiative and money to the people who know what is best for everyone–the community.

Since Hurricane Matthew struck on October 5, much of the progress has been undone.

Hurricane Matthew

A level 4 hurricane, it caused around 2 billion USD in damages and around 546 to 800 deaths. Around 211 are injured and more than 60,000 people are displaced. Some communities are in utter isolation. CNN reported how “not only communication and power were knocked out, but the roads were knocked out, so there has really been no way in.”

Hurricane Matthew not only killed people and destroyed so much of Haiti’s tenuous progress and vital agriculture industry, but delayed an election already in crisis. In 2015, the presidential election was postponed due to fraud. It was rescheduled for October 9 of this year–obviously the Hurricane deterred the election. It will not occur until November 20 and January 29, 2017. However, the logistics of the election look grim: over 500 schools, which are typically used for voting during election day, have been damaged or destroyed in the Hurricane.

Hurricane Matthew’s ramifications are extraordinary, and aid is criticized in light of the circumstances. Haiti’s economic minister was rumored to mishandle humanitarian aid–even for spending it on various political agendas. Almost a month after the Hurricane, frustration grows as international aid efforts struggle to collaborate with national organisations and locals, and funds are purportedly misspent. Post-quake Haiti is as poor and in-need-of-aid as ever.

Now, Haiti needs the right type of assistance.

The tension with aid work is to not only make sure it arrives on time but that it is helpful to the people’s needs.

I recognized one merit above all else: work for the people and by the people. It is a practice of balancing an organisation’s aims with the people’s own ideas. It is honouring the language, history and religion, even if it may involve a vodou pig; in essence, it is to let Haitians prosper the way they were always meant to beyond interference.

Mariah Katz

Photo Credit: Mariah Katz, Haiti 2013