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|
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.