Fear and Loathing in Port-au-Prince (and Beyond)

May 10, 2012

An article by Tate Watkins in The American Interest attempts to explain some of the reasons why, as the title puts it, Haiti’s rebuilding “is…taking so long?”

Among the factors Watkins details are the often quick staff turn-overs at NGO’s and agencies, the differing priorities of foreign NGO’s and agencies versus those of Haitian organizations and the Haitian government, the disproportionately tiny number of contracts going to Haitian contractors, and bureaucratic hurdles. Watkins also focuses on what he sees as another key factor, and one that is less-often mentioned in the media (and which indeed may be much less-often noticed by foreign journalists): foreign aid workers and contractors’ disconnect from the local people where they work.

Many foreign organizations prohibit staff from traveling through certain areas of Port-au-Prince, or they’re forbidden to visit without an SUV with locked doors and windows, a local driver, and a security detail. Private security companies and insurance policies often dictate such travel guidelines. Offices and housing for foreign NGOs and aid agencies working in Haiti are concentrated in Pétion-Ville, an affluent section of the capital home to classy hotels and vibrant restaurants. But the concentration of expats also presents a cluster of targets for crime; the relatively upscale area can be just as dangerous as many other parts of the city. In March 2010, for example, two Swiss employees of the NGO Doctors Without Borders were kidnapped in Pétion-Ville after a night on the town and held for one week. The organization would not disclose whether it paid a ransom for their release.

[Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods co-founder Sasha] Kramer says many of the security measures that foreign organizations take actually increase risks for aid workers, because the restrictions hinder international staff’s ability to forge relationships with locals and build community ties—further hampering their ability to work effectively and efficiently.

She describes it from locals’ point of view: “You come into my neighborhood and you’re already afraid of me? Well, that’s offensive. So I think it engenders a feeling immediately of sort of defensiveness in communities, understandably.” And aid projects suffer as well. She says that she’s sensed tremendous frustration among international employees working with large NGOs who feel disconnected from the people they’re here trying to help.

Community leaders in Cite Soleil, which has long held the unenviable distinction of being perhaps Haiti’s largest and “poorest” (often labeled “worst”) slum, will describe the profound impact this disconnect has on the community’s citizens. In Cite Soleil’s case, the neighborhood is treated as a pariah not just by foreign aid workers, not just by the MINUSTAH troops who patrol its streets and who have mounted numerous deadly raids on its streets, and not just by the elites, who seem to fear (as even Wikileaked documents attest) its citizens more than any others – but by many working class Haitians themselves.

Of course, this dynamic is nothing new. It’s been part of the mindset and standard operating procedure of various NGO’s and foreign agencies for a long time, as described in accounts such as anthropologist Timothy Schwartz’s book Travesty in Haiti, among others. And it tragically emerged as a major reason for wasted opportunities and lives lost in the initial days and weeks after the 2010 earthquake, heightened by exaggerated media reports of “looting” and potential chaos. The U.S. government, which secured a leading role for itself in the emergency relief effort, prioritized a military response over a non-military one, and generally treated the Haitian population as objects of fear to whom aid should be delivered, rather than active participants who could perhaps best act in the rescue and relief operations in their own communities.

This dynamic of fear and distrust, which estranges aid workers from the local population, may also help to explain the incredible disconnect that some in the NGO community seem to exhibit in their behavior, as documented by Michele Mitchell in her film “Haiti: Where Did the Money Go?” Mitchell records NGO staff dining at a posh restaurant where steak costs $34 and wine sells for $72 a bottle, across the street from an IDP camp where the very people these aid workers are supposed to serve struggle for daily survival. This estrangement is certainly deepened by another factor that Tate describes:

Most large NGOs don’t emphasize the need for staff to learn Haitian Creole; proficiency in spoken and written French is a more likely job skill requirement. Some organizations don’t bother with training staff in the local language at all. An estimated 10-20 percent of Haitians speak French. It is not the language of the people. In months following the earthquake, various media outlets reported that Haitians working for aid organizations were seldom granted access to the U.N. base where meetings about relief strategies were held. Even when Haitians were granted access, the meetings were held in only English and French.

“You find people who’ve been here a year and can’t say a single word of Creole,” says Kramer. “That, I think, is shocking, and a real shame.”

Read the rest here.

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