samedi 2 juin 2012

Minority Report

However honest many NGO activists might be, and whatever the sincerity of their commitment, the implicit role of the overwhelmingly majority of the "nongovernmental" organizations is to reinforce existing systems of domination and exploitation.
-Charles Vorbe in Tectonic Shifts
I've never seen the movie Minority Report -- I'm not a big Tom Cruise fan -- but I feel like the title fits. This is a post I've been working on for a while now -- which might explain why it's so long! I don't know what the exact statistics are, but for anyone who lives in Port-au-Prince, it's clear that the city’s demographics are shifting. 

Open Street Map
I distinctly remember as a child, being in the backseat of my parents' car -- a brown station wagon, I believe, and thinking how everyone around me was black. Today, that is no big deal to me and I hope it will never be a big deal for my daughter. But, having been born in the US and having lived there for the first 11 years of my life, I was very conscious of the fact that in that country, I was a minority. Once we moved to Haiti that changed. The president was black, the police officers were black, the teachers were black -- everyone walking down the street was black. It was a wonderful thing to realize and to experience. That is not to say color is not an issue here, it is and always has been, unfortunately, but I was most definitely not a minority for the first time in my life.

Fast forward to today. Each time I return to Haiti by plane from a conference or meeting abroad, the  majority of passengers on the flights to Port-au-Prince seem to be foreigners, mostly businesspeople, NGO workers and missionaries. As I returned to Haiti from North Carolina earlier this month, there was a group of what I assume to be missionaries also headed to Haiti. One of the girls was excitedly telling the others that she had brought masks (I'm assuming surgical?) for them all to wear even though it might make them stand out. I was interested to see what reaction they would have gotten at the International Airport in Port-au-Prince, but (un)fortunately, I didn't get to see the big reveal. 

What concerns me with regard to this influx of foreigners into the Haitian space, is where they enter the society. Which is at the highest levels. Many Haitians go abroad and practice as doctors, bankers, professors, but many more work at much less prestigious jobs -- when they are able to find jobs at all. The foreigners who come to Haiti do not tend to occupy low-income jobs. They are not street vendors or street sweepers, waiters, or domestic workers. They do not have to work their way to the top, they immediately have access to the good life, which obviously creates tensions with the local population. Especially when the major players have plans to "help" Haiti that basically consist of creating even more low-income jobs for Haitians

In my doctoral dissertation, I explored the representation of foreigners in Haitian novels written during the US occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). Some of the issues I paid attention to were the authors' portrayals of relationships that were established between Haitians and foreigners, the ways in which Haitian characters are shown to be humiliated by the Marines and others, and the societal changes that took place as a result of the arrival of a distinct group into a position of immediate power. 

When I think about the contemporary period, both pre and post earthquake, I wonder what stories future Haitian literary texts will tell about the current situation. Of course, narratives are already being forged. A recent novel by Jean-Euphèle Milcé explores these issues. And stories are being told by the aid workers themselves, especially in the blogosphere. The idea of the white savior industrial complex as explained by Teju Cole is especially pertinent here. 

Haiti's cultural landscape is also being altered by the foreigners and their buying power. For example, I went to one of the venues of the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival earlier this year. Besides, my mom, my uncle and I, the servers, the musicians and  individuals at 2 other tables, the restaurant's patrons were all foreign. And by foreign, I mean NGO workers. As we were leaving, I counted 4 Red Cross vans parked, 1 World Food SUV and several UN SUVS. So, my first thought was to note that if I or a family member ever need emergency care, I should head to Pétionville's restaurants. My second thought was what a shame it was that more Haitian people didn't have access to the the jazz festival (and thankfully, the demographic make-up was not the same at all of the venues). My third thought was about the money being spent at that restaurant and the uses Haitians could make of it.  

Aid workers, foreign investors, MINUSTAH employees-- none of them are being paid typical Haitian salaries. If they were, they would not be able to afford to eat out so often. Many of them are able to live the good life in Haiti, yet still manage to save the bulk of their salaries to buy houses or otherwise invest in their home countries.

Meanwhile, restaurant prices have all skyrocketed because aid workers tend to be big spenders. The housing market has been harshly impacted, so that people who used to be able to afford to rent a house now have to settle for an apartment, or go to outlying areas where the prices are cheaper because only NGO workers can afford to rent in the metropolitan area. Airline tickets and food prices have also gone up. There is not one aspect of Haitian society that has not been impacted by the brutal insertion of foreigners claiming to want to help. And yet, I cannot think of one job undertaken by foreign aid workers in Haiti today, by people being offered roundtrip airfare, high end salaries, bonuses for willing to be living in such a dangerous environment, and housing subsidies that could not be done by Haitians for much cheaper and in ways much more organic to the society. 

The people ruling Haiti today, both Haitian and foreign, give speeches about the necessity of a stable, secure state to attract foreign investors and their money. Haiti does not need to be improved so that Haitians might benefit from a more just and pleasant society, but so that investors can make money (Haiti is open for business!). To that end, prices are quoted in US dollars and English is spoken more and more. On that note, a slick periodical was recently launched as part of the effort to revive the Haitian tourist industry. The magazine is produced entirely in English, even including the Minister's address which speaks to power relations as well as the target audience. 

I would love for those in the business of helping Haiti to reflect upon how best to achieve that. Does it really need to include flying to Haiti and renting a shiny SUV in order to go drink rum punch in Pétionville? Some involved in the business do actually seem to be engaging in that sort of self-reflection, but most aren't. Haitians need to hold them accountable if they won't do it themselves, because ultimately, we are the ones who will be most directly impacted by the consequences of the current societal and cultural bouleversement.  


14 commentaires:

  1. Très bon article et j'aime bien le titre. La société haïtienne doit de plus en plus réagir face à cette main mise sur notre quotidien, main mise d’étrangers de toutes sortes qui envahissent l’espace en imposant leurs intérêts, leurs ressources financières, leurs points de vue, rendent la vie plus difficile pour les Haitiens et se transforment en porte-parole d’une population qu’ils n’ont même pas pris le temps ni de connaitre ni de comprendre. Pour moi c’est assez préoccupant que ces gens qui n’ont pas pour la plupart les intérêts d’Haïti à cœur soient ceux dont les rapports et études seront considérés comme paroles d’experts sur Haïti. Car ceux et celles qui parmi eux, font un travail véritable visant à rendre les conditions d’existence meilleures pour le plus grand nombre (car c’est de cela en effet qu’il s’agit !), sont de plus en plus dans la marge malheureusement et constituent une minorité.

  2. I must admit that I was taken aback when I read this post. Perhaps I thought it was uncharacteristic of Tande's literary central theme. When I took a closer look however, I noticed its relevancy and importance. The author touched on many excellent points the country's leaders either overlook or avoid.
    1) After the last Haitian elections, one would think that Theory of Constructivism would top the agenda of Haitian leaders. So, the author caught my attention when she wondered what the post-quake's body of literature would look like and its affects on future generations. I'm afraid to say that without systemic approach to history reporting, foreigners will remake Haiti in their own image. Culture, history and knowledge are byproducts of constructivism, which philosophers define as people constructing their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. In that sense, Nadeve is right to ask what will future generations know of their own country.

  3. 2) Nadeve also talked about Haiti's rising inflation, which went to the heart of our dysfunctional government. Post-quake Haiti is currently experiencing a boom in the tourism industry, yet the government wants to pursue tourism. With 12,000 NGO's working and staying in Haiti, the shift in the genetic make up of the Haitian population seems inevitable. Haiti is open for exploitation is in full force because no matter how many hotels or stadiums we build in the country, the Haitian population will never be able to enjoy them. How many of them will be able to pay $120-$500 per night for a room or enjoy an nice day at the beach? The jazz festival varies no less because, as you argued, the purchasing power resides with the foreigners who get to enjoy Haiti's true beauty and riches while the children of the founding heroes collect their crumbs. The rising friction between the natives and the exploiters are therefore justified and will continue to rise. Future generations will pay the true price for these failures.
    My experiences at Cormier Beach last fall were similar to yours on the plane, which made your opening quote invaluable.

  4. Thank you both for the thought-provoking comments. It's true that this post is somewhat of a departure from Tande's usual topics, but I do think that the foreign presence is so flagrant that one cannot help but wonder what the eventual impact will be on Haitian culture.
    I appreciate "Unknown"'s description of those actually helping as a "minority' as well. Good point.
    And to begin to answer your question, Rap, I'm a university professor and it would definitely be a stretch for me to stay in one of these hotel rooms (and let me point out that these places offer the bare minimum regardless of what the ads say), so yes, they are definitely not targeting us local folk.

  5. At the offset, I should say that I agree completely with the observations, the well asserted points and to some extent, the tenor of this latest blog. But for a particular aspect of the post, I am a sponsor of the cautions advanced. Yet, I read it twice so I could take measure of the numerous subtleties both in the historical context as well as the ever shifting, complex present we cannot ignore that is evermore affecting the disturbing future that awaits us. So, I take exception only to the aspect of the work that would lead one to believe that the presence of the International with their spending power is the problem in itself. I say it is a symptom which we all too often embrace in passion for a disease; but when addressed, reemerges in some other form as the true nature of the problem is never addressed.

    The US dollar in the country is not the problem since other countries as close as the Dominican Republic deals in US currency without such calamitous, “malè pandye,” ominous problems larking on the horizon.

    As a business minded person, after weighing and taking into consideration the complexity of allowing for financial opportunities for the businesses in Petion-ville versus protecting the local economy from the influx of high income, high expense workers against the meager economy of the local population, I deduced that none of these listed issues can be the true nature of the malè pandye so well expressed and forewarned in this blog.

    I would propose that OUR failures are not in the presence of the NGO workers themselves, but rather in our management of their presence. We seek so much to invite the “Blanc” to come spend/invest that we neglected to prepare our house/the country to receive them. I know for instance that the merchants that sell their beaded necklaces etc have the “local” prices and the foreign prices when we go to the “Cote des Arcadins.” This is a way of doing business, a natural evolution of local affairs that sought to address a similar problem of spending power of the international tourist versus the local tourist.

    Yet, in a similar way, the power of the Haitian Government is not being applied (as always) to protect the people. Why can’t the government apply a special tax on international workers who stay in the country for longer than 2 months? After all, if they are earning well beyond the wages of the local population, then a normalization tax should apply to regulate any negative influence their spending power has on the local economy. This would be a medicine geared at addressing the essence of the problem, their spending power which sets them above us locals. I would weiger that if they had to pay an extra 30% each time they eat at a restaurant, the number of their visits would lessen.

    If we must participate in the global economy and be part of this global community at whatever level of participation, then we cannot, must not, revert to any practice that will brand us closed to internationals. We can be open for business and still manage to maintain our cultural integrity.

    The true problem, at its core has yet to be revealed! :-)

    1. You have made some very valid arguments in your intervention. The amount of time you put into detailing your views is to be appreciated. You're right, Haiti must move away from the "State against Nation" model and construct laws that protect the people. However, I'm not sure a normalization tax would be the smartest way to greet those who are "helping" you. While seemingly logical, I think it makes little economic sense, as it would engineer inflation, assuming we could prevent business owners from imposing the same rates on locals. Actually there was a huge custom fee imposed on foreigners, following the earthquake, but Anderson Cooper denounced the practice in a primetime reporting and custom authorities backed off. I would favor an approach that helped synchronize NGOs efforts into a collective national reconstruction plan. The reality is rather different however. The Haitian government itself is an NGO, marginalizing Haiti's poorest with a litany of shortsighted little programs, rather than proposing meaningful legislation to ensure long term growth. Still, Edouard, we have to admit that the supposed help from the NGOs is not given freely; it is nicely wrapped in a ton of conditions and does not contribute to nation building.
      I'm glad you shared your great views Edouard.

  6. Hello Edouard -- welcome to Tande. Thanks for joining the conversation. It's true that relations between Haitians and foreigners have always been complex and sometimes vexed. Additional texes on international workers is an interesting concept. My point in evoking the widespread use of the US dollar, though, was more a cultural one. I think advertising brunches and pool parties in US dollars says more about the type of person organizers are trying to attract than it does about economics. Why is it more hip to say admission price to an event is 25USD than 1000gdes?

    1. It is so funny that you would see the $25USD versus 1000HTG in this cultural sense while my reflex was "direct business strategy" to attract the desired “clientèle.” Put aside the obvious disrespect for the Haitian currency and our local consumers (lè blan yo fin ale, ak kiyes yap sèvi? short term business thinking), this business strategy is one that psychologically minimize the cost of the event in the mind of the target buyer by setting the price with a lower number versus a the expected larger one in gourde. It is the same strategy that leads marketing executives to set the cost of a product at 19.95 instead of 20.00, and make them call dropping the price from the hike they did a week earlier and posting back the new price next to the old one to show you the bargain a "sale." Ultimately, the game is a psychological one, not intended in as much to limit one side as it is to attract the other. Though the end result is the same; our local population is discriminated against in the process, while our culture is diluting.

      A friend pointed out to me yesterday that we should start acknowledging our internationals when they are in our venues so not only they feel seen, but also reminded that they are guest in our midst. While I have not digested this point a great deal to understand the pros and cons in their intricate details, I find it somewhat complimentary to the essence of this conversation.

      Ultimately, my position is that businesses need a balanced sense of consciousness that take into consideration our local economy, our native community and how their decisions impact the essence of our culture in their activities. The understanding that a $25USD advertisement posting (if needed to be done in USD at all) should be accompanied by a 1000HGT equivalent does not come naturally unfortunately; this is for any economy large ones as well as ours. Even with all this understanding of these nuances, all my desire to incorporate our Creole in all the businesses I create does not erase the initial reflex to simply advertise to my target audience, my key demographics etc while I minimize my expenses… But, this is why I subscribe to the works of contemporary idea liberators such as those in this forum; mwen renmen koute, mwen renmen Tande! :-)

  7. It has always struck me as odd and insulting that this new Haitian government's main focus is making Haiti appeal to foreigners. This has been the case since the beginning and while I agree tourism could help, it should not be the main priority. The first thing they should be working on is improving Haitians' quality of life so that they could enjoy their country. It is also imperative that Haiti's identity is not white-washed even as it becomes more popular within the international community. This accurate and intelligent article should be published on a broader scale to make Haitians take a harder look at what is going on and what their future will be in their own country.

  8. I loved this blog post! It expressed a lot of the same sentiments that I had about what is going on in Haiti. I've said it before and I'll say it again, "If we build it, they will come". By build it, I mean build the infrastructure to support our people. By supporting our people, the rest will come. We don't have to spend millions promoting Haiti, we need to spend that money on our people, improve their standard of living, raise their level of happiness, and get them to where they need to be before inviting strangers in.

    And quite honestly, the Diaspora is the group of people that should be targeted by tourism efforts. The money that they send to Haiti alone has maintained our income per capita. By deducting $1.50 from money spent by the Diaspora to Haiti, the president's been able to collect millions, if not billions to pay for free education. Now imagine if those millions of people could start being tourists in their own country. The influx of Haitians of French, German, Italian, American, Dominican, and mixed origin would not only benefit the country financially, but help strengthen our already weakening Haitian culture.

    1. Excellent points Anonyme, which are not too different from Sha's advocacy for plans that would ensure more dignified lives for fellow Haitians.
      As for the Diaspora, I would like to see the government talk about integration, rather than just aiming for the pockets of Haitians living abroad. Right now Haitian leaders think of it as a source of new money to circumvent strict international conditions for aid. They are not inviting the Diaspora to help the lead and change the country, even with the so-called constitutional amendments. The unilaterally tax imposed on calls and transfers is a perfect example. It has been more than a year since President Martelly made the decision, yet there has been no legislation introduced to legitimize the tax. The government cannot touch the money without a proper legal structure. Meanwhile, the collection continues in the hands of corrupt officials without any transparency. The Diaspora must demand transparency through a committee that involves members that not only represent it, but also demand verifiable monthly reports that show where every penny comes from. Otherwise, this will only amount to nothing more than another highway robbery.
      Finally, I don't think the Diaspora alone can boost tourism; Haitians fly home at least once a year, but they go home not to hotels. We need the world to come, but as you argued, we have to build it first.
      I like you thought provoking arguments.

  9. I am glad to see so that this blog post resonates with so many. I'd love to see this conversation continue here and elsewhere, within the blogosphere, but also in newspapers and classrooms, on the bus and at the bank. To that end, I've added a couple of new links to the original post.

    1. Evidently, none of this goes on without your engaging readers, dear writer. A great piece of write indeed. Thank you.

    2. Recent blogposts about an NGO that illustrates what we've been discussing here: and