Building a Foundation for Relations

Published: February 11, 2010 in Knowledge@Emory

The earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010, resulted in the deaths of more than 210,000 people and prompted an outpouring of support from the U.S and other countries. Barely a week after the disaster, the Chronicle of Philanthropyreported that more than two dozen U.S. charities had collected donations totaling in excess of $305 million for the relief effort in Haiti. As of February 3, donations had topped $644 million.

This outpouring of U.S. goodwill towards Haiti is not necessarily representative of the historical relationship between the two countries. According to several faculty members from across Emory University and elsewhere who participated in a recent discussion entitled, “Haiti Relief: A Film Screening and Teach-In,” American foreign policy towards Haiti has been an inconsistent amalgamation of philanthropy, occupation and neglect. These mixed messages have plagued relations between the two countries, say the faculty members, and they are concerned when Americans, from various newspaper columnists to former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, talk about rebuilding Haiti “the right way.”

Cécile Accilien, an associate professor of French and francophone cultures at Columbus State University and one of four Haitian-Americans gathered for the critical discussion, cautioned that imposing American policy on the will of Haitians could "do more harm than good." Accilien, who is co-editor of the book Revolutionary Freedoms: a History of Survival, Strength and Imagination in Haiti, adds that "this notion of well-meaning people going to help us—that’s very problematic.”

The majority of Haitians may live on the equivalent of a dollar a day, but they are a vibrant people with a rich culture, note the faculty members. That cultural complexity is captured in the Haitian proverb "Dèyè mòn, gen mòn" [Behind the mountains, there are more mountains], says Accilien, adding that Haiti is “much more than the image of poor people portrayed in mainstream media.” What the relief and rebuilding efforts need, she says, is “cultural sensitivity.” For instance, there are two official languages in Haiti, French and Creole. More than 80% of the population speaks only Creole, while French is the language of the elite. Early in the relief effort, Accilien assisted international aid organizations in translating documents—including instructions on how to ensure water is safe to drink—from English and French to Haitian Creole.

Joining Accilien for the panel discussion were Regine Jackson, assistant professor, Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University; Guirdex Massé, a graduate student of African-American and African-Caribbean literature in Emory's Department of English; and Lovia Mondésir, a graduate student in the Department of French and Italian, Emory University. The event was moderated by Valérie Loichot, associate professor of French and Italian, Emory University. Loichot is the author of Orphan Narratives: The Postplantation Literature of Faulkner, Glissant, Morrison, and Saint-John Perse and has published several essays on Caribbean literature and culture, as well as on creolization theory.

To provide the audience with some background, the evening began with a screening of The Agronomist, a documentary about the life of Haitian radio journalist and human rights activist Jean Dominique. “I try to introduce information,” he says in the film. “It’s risky business.” He was assassinated in April 2000.

In chronicling Dominique’s story, much of Haiti’s historic and often violent fight for democracy is also told. The movie, directed by Oscar-winning American filmmaker Jonathan Demme, replays what it considers to be the U.S. government’s spotty record of involvement in the country, starting with its choice not to recognize Haiti’s independence in 1804. Haiti was the first black country to gain independence from a white country (France), and the U.S. was wary of the message that recognizing Haiti would send to blacks in its own country. According to the film, it took the U.S. more than a half a century to recognize Haiti’s sovereignty. The U.S. occupied Haiti from 1915 through 1934 and has had a hand in many of the country’s elections since, a fact that leads many Haitians to view U.S. interest in the country with trepidation. “Haiti is not a nation of orphans, and the U.S. is not a nation of kind foster parents,” states Massé. “History runs much longer.”

For more than a century, the citizens of Haiti have been victimized by Haitian leaders, and the country’s violent past of iron-fisted governmental rule and bloody military coups is documented in the movie, including intermittent military rule and the back-and-forth presidencies of the priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his rival René Préval, currently the president of Haiti. In many ways, the victimization of the Haitian people by its government continues. Former Haitian president Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, like his father, “Papa Doc,” was accused by Haitians of stealing millions in public funds before being ousted in 1986. In a recent ruling, Switzerland’s top court said that approximately $4.6 million in Swiss bank accounts that had previously been awarded to charities must be returned to the family of the former Haitian leader.

According to the Emory panelists, the centralization of the Haitian government has exacerbated the effects of the disaster by making it difficult to get supplies to cities outside Port-au-Prince. Efforts to deliver aid to outlying areas has been handled largely by NGOs such as the Red Cross, CARE, and Catholic Relief Services, notes Jackson, but their efforts to distribute medical supplies, food and water have been hampered by the lack of any meaningful local government agencies. While these organizations are doing a wonderful job, states Jackson, “some NGOs are frustrated because they don’t know the local infrastructure.” Jackson, whose research areas are in immigration, the Haitian diaspora, and racial and ethnic identity, adds that while NGOs are “absolutely necessary in Haiti,” the performance of NGOs has “weakened the Haitian state.” Oftentimes, she explains, the role Haitians play in NGOs is minimized. “They’re sometimes shut out at higher levels,” Jackson contends. “We can’t just be seen as receivers of aid, [we also need to be seen] as coordinators of aid.”

Haiti is roughly the size of the state of Maryland and home to 9 million people. While unemployment data is difficult to ascertain, several estimates indicate that more than two-thirds of Haiti’s labor force do not have formal jobs and depend on agriculture—generally subsistence farming—for their livelihood. Even before the earthquake, poor infrastructure, an irregular supply of electricity, and political uncertainty created hurdles for future business investment in the country.

The U.S. Department of State’s September 2009 Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs notes that Haiti’s economic stagnation is also due to “a shortage of arable land, environmental deterioration, continued reliance on traditional technologies, undercapitalization and lack of public investment in human resources,” as well as to the migration of large portions of Haiti’s skilled population. About one of every eight Haitians lives abroad, notes the U.S. Department of State. This large-scale emigration has created what Haitians refer to as the “diaspora.”

A fair amount of Haiti’s $11 billion GDP is fueled by Haitians living in the diaspora, a number thought to be somewhere between one and two million. These Haitians collectively send an estimated $1.9 billion back to Haiti. “Now there’s more pressure on us,” says Accilien of Haitians living abroad. According to the panelists, these Haitians will play a critical role in financing the country’s recovery, and they believe that U.S. immigration policy will play a role in their ability to do so.

According to the Bureau of Western Hemisphere’s report, remittances sent by Haitians in the diaspora are important in offsetting the cost of education. Although public education is free in Haiti, the cost for uniforms, books and supplies can be daunting in a country where per capita income is approximately $560. Less than 20% of secondary school-aged children are actually enrolled in school, notes the report.

Allowing Haitians to enter the U.S. would increase their ability to earn and send money home. Jackson believes immigration policy should be mobilized “around humanitarian and refugee policies,” she says, “not based around security issues.”

In addition, the panelists expressed concern that when the media attention fades, the world will once again forget about Haiti. Accilien worries that the relief efforts, much like the democratic elections of the last two decades, will initially instill hope in the Haitian people, only to be followed by an all too familiar neglect.

As the world comes together to help solve Haiti’s urgent crisis, more problems will present themselves. It remains to be seen whether or not Haiti will receive, as Mondésir wonders, “another kind of help." A type of help, she says, that is long-term, that works to build a stronger educational system, a type of help that is tailored to Haiti’s needs, and that fosters the culture’s agronomist roots. “It’s not just about money,” stresses Mondésir, noting, “It’s about volunteers teaching skills. It’s about creating their lives.”


Photo: Haitian-American scholars discuss U.S.-Haiti relations. From left, Guirdex Massé, Regine Jackson, Lovia Mondésir, and Cécile Accilien.


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