The Haitian Conundrum, Perception or Reality?

On Friday March 21st 2014, I had the privilege of watching (for the second time) Mortal Assistance.  It is a documentary directed and produced by our own Raoul Peck and for some reason, seeing it on big screen, with state-of-the-art sound, without interruptions and distractions and hearing the filmmaker’s insight, made a world of difference.

I had a chance to thank him personally for making this film and for giving voice to the Haitian people and their post-earthquake plight.  The confusion that ensued after January 12, 2010 was a reflection of the weakness of the Haitian system matched by the arrogance of perceived superiority by the foreigners.  As Raoul Peck puts it, “everyone wanted a piece of the pie”; and there was a huge pie to be had.  His film is for Haiti, for victims everywhere and for the failure of assistance.  It showed that whenever policies fail, people’s lives are affected and their basic human rights trampled.  You should see it.

How can so much money and so much will to do good turn so badly? That must be the conundrum of the century.  It is the ongoing struggle between what people think is and what actually is.

Speaking of conundrum, I had the opportunity to have a short conversation with a Haitian woman who also attended the showing.  She is a Haitian entrepreneur who wanted to speak of the changes she witnessed during the two years since the film was first aired in 2012.  She feels the cinéaste should think about making another documentary painting the “new reality” showing how “things have changed in the past two years”.

I caught up with her during the little informal post-show gathering.  I was curious.  I was perplexed.  I wanted to know how things have indeed changed in Haiti.  It was important for me to hear it from her.  After all, she is an entrepreneur, an endangered species in Haiti.  I believe that along with education and reformed institutions, the entrepreneur is the key to progress and development in a country where so many need jobs.

So, I asked her.  How have things changed in Haiti since the film first aired in 2012? I braced myself, held my breath, opened my ears and started taking mental notes for the next blog.  My curiosity was only rivaled by my excitement at the prospect of hearing something “life-altering”…

I listened to the entrepreneur and to her perception of the Haitian reality.

Let me first say that she was lovely and kind and genuine.  I could tell that this was a woman whose money and heart were invested in that country and she was a survivor, the kind who would roll up her sleeves and rebuild the business that was, perhaps, destroyed by an earthquake.  I got that.  I also got that the major problem with Haiti is that those who have do not have a clue about the reality of those who struggle.  How is that even possible? In Haiti, where one has the overwhelming sense that cities were kidnapped by overpopulated slums, it is impossible to miss the poverty and the chaos. It is everywhere! In the piles of trash that adorn our crowded sidewalks, in the soiled children making some money cleaning windshields with dirty rags, in the open markets that have claimed most of our streets and in the young men carrying hundreds of pounds of metal on their heads-they will not celebrate 35- (to guarantee today’s meal).  Poverty is an inescapable and conspicuous reality.

So, I asked again.  What has changed? Well, we have two new beautiful hotels in Petion-Ville, some of the squares have been cleared and rebuilt.  A lot of the rubble has been removed.  Some foreign investors are interested in investing in Haiti.  Of course they are! (I said).  I don’t doubt that all business people are always looking for a market.  So, I asked again, more specifically, how has the human condition changed? I was looking for a profound conversation at the end of which both people would walk away satisfied because for 5 minutes they had been enhanced by another fellow human being.  This was not that kind of conversation.

She tried. I was disappointed.  We were speaking oranges and bananas, and unless it is in a carton of juice, those two can never mix.  When I ask, what has changed, I am referring to the number of jobs created, the number of criminals caught and brought to justice, the number of schools built, the square mileage of the areas where new seedlings were planted, the contingency plan to move/shelter people in the event of a hurricane, the new building codes for seismo-resistant structures, the new policies and measures to reform the institutions and the new steps taken to counter institutionalized corruption and curtail unnecessary government expenses…The list is long, longer than the one I’m offering here and, in all fairness, no government with one 5-year term can handle that much work.  Had she picked just one item on that list, I would have left a very happy woman.  As it turned out, progress and change have different meanings for different people.  Ask a woman sitting on the sidewalk selling oranges and bananas (she is more representative of the majority of Haitians) , she will tell you in a minute three things that would make her happy:

1- School for her children

2- More police to catch those criminals who make her life hell

3- Better housing

For another, an entrepreneur, new parks and two hotels are a sign of progress.

Until we take a  long and hard look at how the majority lives, we will never be in a position to enact laws and make policies that will be geared toward progress and development.  We have to look passed the tall manned gates of our comfort to see the reality.  We have to change our perception and give up some of that sense of entitlement.  We cannot change our reality unless we know it.

I will leave you with some statistics of pre and post earthquake Haiti.  I wonder how the victims’ lives have changed in 2014; I’m thinking about those orphaned children.

Cassandra Honorat

“About 494,600 children under five and 197,840 pregnant and lactating women were affected by the earthquake.

An estimated 302,000 children were displaced to other departments, with an additional 720,000 affected children remaining in their home communities.

Forty percent of the population of Haiti is under 14 years of age; 50 percent of the population is under 18 years of age.

Haiti development statistics (pre-earthquake):

  • 55 percent of Haitians live on less than $1.25 per day.
  • Per capita annual income is $660.
  • 58 percent of children are under-nourished.
  • 58 percent of the population lacks access to clean water.
  • Devastating hurricanes in 2008 affected 800,000 people.
  • Deforestation has left the nation with less than two percent forest cover.

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