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With Friends Like These…

In thinking about my post from yesterday, I want to make sure I’m not misunderstood on one point: In criticizing ways that aid to Haiti is sometimes delivered, I don’t mean to call into question the genuine good will of those who are trying to help. I’m also not saying that Haitians shouldn’t be helped, or that they somehow deserve their misery and poverty. I’m saying that they should be taken on their own terms. I’m saying that the dignity and situation of any people is not enhanced by outsiders who dictate conditions based on their own arbitrary conclusions about how the world should work.

Amy Wilentz’s article on page 124 of Libète underscores the pitfalls of judging behavior we don’t understand by filtering it through our usual pair of lenses. Haiti, she suggests, must be taken on its own terms. We cannot force our ideas and sensibilities on others.

Take, for example, our insistence on forcing our idea of democracy on Haiti, a policy which has led to the withholding of over $500 million in aid money. We seem to forget in this country that one of the major reasons our representative democracy works so well for us is that we decided on it ourselves. We fought for it and we won it because we thought it was right for us. We declared independence because we thought that King George’s tyranny was crushing us and depriving us of our lives and liberty. I dare say our constitution would be meaningless if it had been forced on us at bayonet-point by some country who thought they knew better.

Yet, I can sympathize with those who ache for change in Haiti at any cost. Conditions there are miserable, of that there is no doubt. The infrastructure that might supply basic human needs such as clean water, sewage, and health care are non-existent. The token number of garbage trucks that actually run can’t manage to make a dent in the hundreds of tons of trash that pile up in the streets. Families who have shelter are reduced to living either in cardboard hovels or tin boxes that become ovens in the noonday sun. Eight people might live in a 12-foot by 12-foot room, and so must either sleep standing up or in 4-hour shifts. One lady reported sleeping standing up holding two children while flood water mixed with human waste flowed past her belly button. Children as young as four years old are given up by poor families to well-off urbanites who will use the toddlers as house slaves. Twelve-year-old prostitutes satisfy their johns for the equivalent of 30 American cents. Doctors warn patients not to go to the public hospitals. Misery after misery after misery splatters the canvas of Haiti like an epileptic Jackson Pollack.

What feeling person wouldn’t respond with sympathy and love to such a situation? When faced with such stark poverty, caring people want desperately to help. Yet, putting a bandage on someone with internal bleeding is not help.

Take the food shortage, for example. Drought and degraded agricultural conditions are causing a severe famine in Haiti. Humanitarian aid that does make it to the country is so laden with conditions as to make it meaningless. The US government surplus food aid is referred to as manje sinistre, and Haitian criticisms of it are stinging. As the Haiti Briefing’s Famine and Food Aid (p 117, Libète) reports:

“A coordinator of the Tèt Kole peasant movement harshly denounced the government’s emergency food-for-work programme administered by CARE. Hungry people must work for three weeks to receive a small quantity of US-government-supplied surplus cracked wheat. He told Haiti Info that Tèt Kole had met with the government in March and suggested that local food instead of food aid be used, and instead of road work, peasants should be paid to work on their fields to prepare them for the upcoming season.”

The same criticism is leveled in a 1997 report by Grassroots International. The report, entitled “ Feeding Dependency, Starving Democracy: USAID Policies in Haiti,” opens with the following quote:

CARE has been “helping” people in the Northwest [of Haiti] for decades. But each year, the misery of the people of the Northwest increases. What is the real impact of this aid? To make people more dependent, more vulnerable, more on the margins?...The aid is not given in such a way as to give the people responsibility, to make them less dependent….This is what you call “commercializing” poverty….The people’s misery should not be marketed…. – Samuel Madisten, Haitian Senator

The report found that US-funded food aid and job-creation programs actually hurt Haitians by, among other things, lowering the prices farmers could get for rice and other grains, initiating projects which are at odds with “stated national, regional, and local priorities,” underfunding agricultural revitalization programs, and luring people into job-creation programs at key harvest times. This last item had the stunning effect of letting entire rice crops rot in the middle of a famine.

Treating our brothers and sisters in Haiti in this way is not right; it is not just. Compassion is from the Latin and means “to suffer with.” A compassionate nation will suffer with – not profit from – its brother in need.

A compassionate nation offers assistance without strings attached. A compassionate response becomes the “rising tide that lifts all boats.” A compassionate response would invite participation of the Haitian people in coming up with solutions. A compassionate response to people in need would be one that made future instances of help unnecessary. If, like Amy Wilentz, we learn to understand Haitians and meet them on their terms, then we may yet hope for improvement. If not, then more and more lives will be wasted in suffering, and more of them will suffer at the hands of those who would help.