Kevin Alexander Gray at his Railroad BBQ restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina (Photo: John A. Carlos II)
Kevin Alexander Gray co-wrote this article after a trip to post-earthquake Haiti.
This article was originally published in The Nation in the aftermath of the January 12, 2010 earthquake.
Editor’s Note: The authors were in Haiti from January 24-29 as members of a team of five activists and academics, three of whom are Haitian-Americans, to assess conditions after the January 12 earthquake. Among the three Haitian-Americans was Patrick Bastien, vice president of the board of directors of Scattering Resources, a group formed by Haitian-Americans to provide aid to grassroots efforts in their native country. The trip was coordinated by Vladimir LaBorde, executive director of Fondation Avenir (FA), a nonprofit organization based in Port-au-Prince that works "to improve the lives of the marginalized." Fondation Avenir’s headquarters suffered major damage from the earthquake; donations to joint projects between Scattering Resources and FA can be made online.
Any expectation of corporate benevolence in the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake in Haiti quickly evaporated at the airport check-in. We were bringing in money and supplies, but we weren’t part of an aid group recognized by Delta or American, so we were hit with additional baggage fees. At the suggestion of sympathetic airline employees, we evenly divided the supplies so that each bag was under fifty pounds. Nonetheless, four of us still had to hand over about $1,000 total for our additional baggage.
The extra baggage fee was shocking since most major airlines had announced they were organizing relief flights or offering incentives to customers who donated to aid organizations. Within days of the quake, AMR Corporation, the parent company of American Airlines and American Eagle, sent three commuter aircraft into Haiti carrying relief supplies. Spirit Airlines said it was working with the Department of Health and Human Services to provide aircraft for humanitarian aid efforts. Both Spirit and American gave bonus miles to frequent fliers who donated miles or money to UNICEF, the Red Cross or Wyclef Jean’s Yéle Haiti. United Airlines Foundation said it would match up to $50,000 in monetary donations to the organization’s International Response Fund. JetBlue flew relief workers "vetted by the Haitian Consulate" free of charge to Santo Domingo.
The airlines got good PR for their efforts. Donors got bonus miles and maybe the feeling that they had helped out. On one hand, the airlines offered a bit of help. On the other, they siphoned money away from travelers to Haiti–money that could have gone to people whose annual per capita income is less than $400 and where more than 78 percent live on less than $2 a day and more than half live on less than $1 a day. One person’s tragedy is often another person’s opportunity. In this case, airlines have benefited from packed planes and excess baggage; rental car companies have benefited from the delivery of relief supplies and workers; and big-box stores from the purchase of water, nonperishable food and camping supplies.
Contrary to government and media reports about the "difficulty of getting into Haiti," we had no trouble getting into the country, and we didn’t encounter roaming "bandits." We drove right through the gate at Malpasse as it opened at 8 in the morning. Although Malpasse means "bad pass," we were pleasantly surprised at how open the border was; there were no guards present. In Haiti’s Odious Debt, Eric Toussaint and Sophie Perchellet cite Eduardo Galeano talking about "the white curse." Galeano writes: "At the border where the Dominican Republic ends and Haiti begins, there is a large sign with the following warning: ‘El mal paso–Le mauvais passage. De l’autre côté, c’est l’enfer noir. Sang et faim, mis&eegrave;re, pestes. (The bad path. On the other side, it is black hell. Blood and hunger, poverty, plagues).’ We didn’t see that sign.
While the US media has portrayed Haiti as a place of chaos and helplessness, we found just the opposite. Arriving in Port-au-Prince we were taken aback by the calmness of the city. We found a strange sense of tranquility from the moment we drove through the border to our last minutes in the country.
Undoubtedly, the devastation is heartbreaking. People are still in shock over the deaths of well over 200,000 souls. An estimated 40-60,000 bodies are buried beneath collapsed concrete and cinderblock buildings. Foreign health workers usually arrive on the scene of a wrecked building after the stench of decaying bodies overcomes an area. Hundreds of thousands of children are now orphans. Millions have been left to survive in unsanitary, makeshift tents and shanty communities. Almost everyone lost a family member or friend in the disaster. Sophia Charles, one of the members of our sponsoring organization Fondation Avenir, spent a day buried under rubble until she was pulled to safety. When lamenting to her that her death "would have been a beautiful loss," she softly responded, "they were all beautiful losses."
One of the more remarkable things we saw was how communities–blocks, streets and housing compounds–organized sleeping arrangements. Members in each community erected makeshift roadblocks to protect those sleeping in the streets from cars. In many cases, people stood guard over the sleeping. After dark the most prominent sounds were dogs barking and roosters crowing. We heard no gunshots in the air. When we drove through the quiet streets of Port-au-Prince at night on the way to the airport, our passage was directed by community members who had been posted to watch over those sleeping in the street.
In Port-au-Prince, Croix de Bouquets, Pétionville and the two cities at the epicenter of the earthquake, Gressier and Léogâne, the longest lines–after those for food and water–are at the money wire/transfer offices. The lines are orderly. We heard a common refrain up and down Haitian class lines: "We have food. What the people need is money to buy it." Of course, there’s a need for the beans, rice and sardines that come in aid packages. But there’s also a need for money to buy charcoal, shovels, wheelbarrows and leather gloves. Many Haitians complained about "getting plastic [medical] gloves to remove both bodies and concrete stones" or the US sending "soldiers instead of shovels," "while the Cubans sent doctors and the Venezuelans set up five power plants." When one sees men standing atop pancaked concrete slabs lifting and tossing down broken stones into the street with their bare hands, one wonders if there are gloves in some of those cargo containers coming into the country and if there are, why haven’t they been passed out.
Although the American Red Cross most likely got the lion’s share of US donated relief dollars, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and the Red Crescent had much more of a presence throughout the areas we visited. Airlifted supplies from Franklin Graham’s (Billy’s son) Samaritan’s Purse were also noticeably present on the tarmac at Toussaint L’Ouverture Airport and in and around Port-au-Prince, as were bags of USAID rice and the Christian missionaries now descending on the country in large numbers.
Haiti has been branded "a failed state" with a "progress-resistant culture" of persistent want and poverty. The result is that white foreigners get to play the prominent roles of delivering aid and being saviors to the Haitian people. Meanwhile, the countless Haitians, Haitian-Americans and others who are working hard on the ground remain virtually invisible.
Recent statistics indicate that there are some 3,000 NGOs in this country of 9 million people, or roughly one NGO per 3,000 people, the highest per-capita concentration in the world. A Haitian NGO consultant that we spoke with on our visit claimed that "75 percent of the USAID dollars supposedly aimed at development in Haiti goes back to the United States." In the aftermath of the earthquake, this conundrum has been magnified and laid bare for all to see.
According to the Associated Press, "less than a penny of each dollar the US is spending on earthquake relief in Haiti is going in the form of cash to the Haitian government." Since President Obama announced an initial $100 million for Haiti earthquake relief, US government spending on the disaster has nearly quadrupled to $379 million. As the AP reports, each American dollar roughly breaks down like so: "42 cents for disaster assistance, 33 cents for US military aid, nine cents for food, nine cents to transport the food, five cents for paying Haitian survivors for recovery efforts, just less than one cent to the Haitian government and about half a cent to the Dominican Republic."
Watching the flow of aid–be it money or in-kind donations, workers or material goods–into Haiti, one can’t ignore the ongoing alliance of the Haitian elite and foreign investors to keep Haiti good for their interests, yet abysmally bad for the average Haitian. Former President Bill Clinton’s recent comments at the World Economic Forum make it clear that he wants to keep Haiti good for business. This could lead to an expansion of the textile sweatshop industry to take advantage of cheap labor, more tourism and a weakening of state control of the economy through neoliberal policies of privatization and deregulation. What also remains unclear is the scope of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund (CBHF) and the meaning of its goal to "build back better." Only time will tell.
So what needs did the people express? They were many, both short and long term. Some are basic and obvious. First, there’s an urgent need to provide temporary, quality shelter and sanitation for the over 1 million people displaced by the earthquake. A mix of 200,000 twenty-person tents, converted cargo containers and habitat-styled housing has been proposed, along with the suggestion that the Catholic Church give up some of its land holdings in the effort. If this were to happen, it would mean the relocation of scores of people to rural areas outside of Port-au-Prince. But the immediate short-term worry is a possible health crisis should Haitians be caught unsheltered in the rainy season that begins in mid-March and peaks in April. Scores will fall prey to disease.
As for long-term needs, those must be developed in conversation with Haitians. Furthermore, those conversations need to take place with the needs of all Haitians at the forefront and with the recognition that Haitians are the best experts on their own needs and destinies.
Haitians want the strings loosened on aid and for the clean up to move quickly. A larger portion of the aid dollars has to get to the Haitian people and community economic development and jobs. The NGOs and donor nations must engage all of Haitian society, not just those on aid payrolls. Instead of sending infantry, paramilitary units and UN "security" troops, send engineers with heavy equipment. And if the United States intends to regularly use soldiers in humanitarian efforts they should better train them. It might help the soldiers avoid being viewed as "ugly Americans." Many people expressed the sentiment that "the US troops were not sent to help. They were sent there just to be in charge."
Although some Haitians view US help as "washing your hands and wiping them on the ground," most welcome any aid and attention to their plight, given the scale of the devastation and death. We heard more than a few say that Haitian-Americans should come back to the island and help, as well as appeals to African-Americans and the black church to come, especially in light of the influx of white, fundamentalist missionaries. Civil workers suggested that American colleges and universities could help out by conducting community and social mapping or providing urban planners. And helping to figure out who was lost and who’s alive. One Haitian-American attorney we met with spoke of the need to create a reliable, fair, trustworthy, respected and humane justice system. Even so, nobody wanted the United States to pick their leaders or run or control their government and politics.
Then there’s the ongoing demand for a humane, open immigration policy with the US to include greater education exchange in light of the damage to the Haitian school system. There is also the need to take a close look at the adoption issue. Finally, there are calls to forgive Haiti’s international debt. Aid to Haiti should be in the form of grants, not loans. And many feel that France should pay restitution to Haiti for its "odious debt."
Many have remarked that the earthquake has created a "tabula rasa" for Haiti: a chance to start anew with a blank slate. The question is who will get to write on the slate, Haitians or everybody else? As for our part, Haitians like to say that they "have a history that’s based on betrayal." America should make amends for their part in it. We can begin by dispensing compassion and not pity, a helping hand and not a military occupation, by working with the Haitian people and not for them, and by treating this free and proud people with respect and dignity.
Note: Biographies are reprinted from this 2010 article.
Jemima Pierre is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies at the University of Texas. She is also the William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University.
Tanya Golash-Boza is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and American Studies at the University of Kansas and a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Awardee. She is currently writing a book on discourses of blackness in Peru.
Kevin Alexander Gray was Jesse Jackson’s South Carolina campaign manager in 1988. The author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics, he is co-owner of Railroad BBQ in Columbia, S.C.