Monday, January 24, 2011

Haiti: My Work

I went to Haiti to intern with a Philadelphia-based non-profit called Explorers Sans Frontiers (ESF). Shonta, my boss, founded ESF about three years ago and the organization has been growing ever since. ESF brings teams of American students and professionals to underserved parts of the developing world. The programs integrate humanitarian service and cross-cultural education. Specific activities and the particular mix of service and exploration vary depending on the country and length of the trip. The main thing ESF does in Haiti is run medical clinics in underserved neighborhoods in Port-Au-Prince.

My title was Intern for Collaboration and Program Monitoring and Evaluation, and my primary responsibility was to help ESF develop collaborative partnerships with other NGOs. Additionally, I identified opportunities to begin monitoring and evaluating the impact of ESF’s work.

Since I arrived in Haiti midway through an ESF trip, I spent the first several days assisting the medical team and observing the implementation of ESF’s program from an impact assessment perspective. From then until I left Haiti, I spent my time visiting various organizations in Port-Au-Prince to interview their staff and observe their programs. Having absorbed as much information as possible, I created a report identifying potential partnership opportunities.

A typical day would begin with breakfast and internet time (if the electricity was up) while I waited for my colleagues to arrive. Rousevelt and Anderson are college students and ESF staff. They’re brothers, best friends, study-buddies, and completely inseparable. “The boys,” were my constant companions.

After they picked me up, the three of us would head out. Our day’s activities might include meeting with the director of an orphanage, visiting a mobile clinic one of our partner agencies was running, or attending a briefing on the Cholera outbreak at the Ministry of Public Health and Population. Because the communications infrastructure is unreliable, the professional culture prioritizes face to face meetings. Because it takes so long to get from one place to another, our daily agenda was of necessity quite short. Accomplishing two things in a day was productive. Three was outstanding.

After the boys escorted me home at the end of the day, I’d generally eat dinner, check email (if the electricity was up), and plan for the following day before going to bed.

Haiti: Port-Au-Prince and Pétionville

Like LA, its first world sister in poor air quality, Port-Au-Prince sits at the bottom of a half-bowl formed by mountains in close proximity to the sea. The city feels bigger than it is because it takes so long to get from one place to another (awful roads combined with dense and unruly traffic). Chickens and goats wander everywhere and are especially thick in the residential neighborhoods. Both are used mainly for meat.

Port-Au-Prince is a bizarre combination of visual monotony and shocking contrast. Everywhere you see collapsed houses and piles of rubble that have not been touched since the earthquake. Next to such a house, you may very well see a newly re-built mansion. Next to either, a shack constructed of tarps and tin that houses five people. The discontinuity almost becomes monotonous. Until your eyes adjust and you learn how to look, every street looks the same. This is doubly true in residential areas with no houses, collapsed or otherwise: just street after street, dusty and rocky, lined with Shelter-Boxes and tents and endless endless tarps.* For me, at least, three weeks was barely long enough to start to remember particular locations. Even then my mental map is little more than a series of street corners I’ve somehow learned to identify; a particular row of tents next to a curved white concrete wall, a place that sells tires wrapped in strips of shiny Mylar paper, a fork in the road just before it becomes paved.

Inland from Port-Au-Prince on the foothill slopes of the mountains sits the wealthier suburb known as Pétionville. I first went to Pétionville on my third day in Haiti, up until which point I’d seen only tent cities. The incredible contrast was disorienting. Though it’s obvious that Pétionville is in a developing country, it is in much better shape than Port-Au-Prince. There are fully paved roads with working traffic signals, prosperous markets, even luxury stores and an American style supermarket complete with Pepperidge Farm cookies. There are also a lot of walled mansions on quiet, tree-lined streets. This is where the majority of Haiti’s elite live. Because its infrastructure is so much better, it’s also where most of the international NGOs have their offices.

Roughly half the vehicles that clog the streets are tap-taps (see “where I stayed”), very beat up private vehicles, or larger busses nicknamed “Obamas” because they appeared in Port-Au-Prince around the same time President Obama was sworn into office. A staggering number of white four-wheel drives sporting various NGO logo comprise the rest of the traffic. I started keeping lists of NGOs whose logos I spotted in Haiti, and whether I saw them on a truck, on a building, or on a tarp or a tent. Though all three lists are too long to transcribe, I saw all the names you’d expect to see,** plus a few surprises: I was delighted to see Islamic Relief Services and the Tai Chi Federation of Taiwan, and I also saw donations of supplies from Rotary International and a number of different governments. And then, of course, there’s the UN. The UN in its various incarnations probably has as many vehicles in Port-Au-Prince and Pétionville as all the international NGOs combined. In my goofier moments I imagined creating a bingo board with all the NGO and UN agency acronyms. I could send it down with future volunteers: when you see the logo you check it off, and whoever gets five in a row wins. Given that the winners in this agency fun-fest are supposed to be the Haitian people, however, Bingo is a bit tacky.

*After a while you can start to identify the donating organization by the color of the tarp: light royal blue is Samaritans’ Purse, gray with darker gray stripes is USAID, and tan tents are from the Brasilian Civil Defense, while cerulean blue tents are from the People’s Republic of China. The rest are mostly plain gray and dusty white at this point, regardless of logo.

**Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, World Vision, Save The Children, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, PLAN, AmeriCares, and a host of smaller organizations

Haiti: Tent Cities

The tent cities are everywhere. They crowd into any accessible open space: fields, nature strips, public parks, anywhere. There’s a large park by a cathedral in the center of wealthy Pétionville, and the tent city that now crowds every inch of it emphasizes all the more plainly the chasm between Haiti’s rich and poor. The center of downtown Port-Au-Prince had many of the older and lovelier buildings in the city, including some stately public buildings like the now famously crumbled Presidential Palace and the national museum. These last two especially are ringed with broad avenues, spreading parks, and several large circular intersections with monuments in the middle (think of l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris). The parks and gardens used to be well tended and green, with lush trees and flowers and flowing fountains. Rousevelt told me it used to be the most beautiful place in Haiti.

Now, of course, the parks and plazas are a crowded labyrinth of tents and shanty-shacks, and the trees are watered by wash water. Some flowers still bloom, but generally other smells overwhelm their fragrance: smoke from cooking fires, food being prepared, exhaust, unwashed bodies, garbage, and sewage. The fountains are dry. Water flows instead from a row of taps springing from the occasional Oxfam or Red Cross water tank system, where people us wash themselves, their clothes, their dishes, and anything else. One child I saw had covered himself with soap and was sliding around on his belly on the wet pavement, having a ball. The NGO-built latrines are unmistakable. They come in banks of four or five, all in a row, identical and probably inadequate. The camp president guided us through this tent city, which is a very good thing: The boys and I would definitely have gotten lost on our own.

The shanties have their own kind of beauty, or at least visual interest. The collage of chicken wire and faded paint on wood with corrugated metal and lace curtains is strangely compelling. Residents make concerted home improvement efforts even to their tarps and tents. They scallop the edges of the plastic sheeting that forms their roof and cut elaborate and decorative window shapes into the walls of their tents. These window shapes are inspired by the wrought iron windows and gates that are so much a part of Haitian architecture.

I stayed for nearly two weeks in my own tent, in the yard of a house that is surrounded by two tent cities (see “where I stayed”). The sense of community seemed very strong in this neighborhood, perhaps because people live in such close proximity to one another. Of course I was homesick, but even as a foreigner I wasn’t exactly lonely. I was always aware of the people around me, and could usually tell what they were doing. It’s quite a contrast to the private isolation in which most New Yorkers live: I can’t imagine these neighbors not knowing one another. The structures are so open that all sounds carry easily: if a church is holding services, everyone in the neighborhood can (and often does) sing along with the hymns. Even in the relative privacy of my tent, my senses were full of the sounds and smells of people living. I woke at sunrise to the sound of roosters, footsteps on gravel, and other sounds of people waking up and moving around. I heard pots being lifted and set down, and people’s voices as they greeted each other.

The camp was busy but quiet in the mid-to-late afternoon. The sounds of hammering, chickens making a ruckus, and kids shouting sifted through a continual murmur of voices. I would hear someone dumping out the wash water and a diesel engine roaring on the other side of the small valley, it’s sound strangely muted by the distance (I could usually hear its suspension, too, and even its cargo bouncing around in the back). The ground is packed so hard it’s like clay, and it’s full of rocks. Everything is the color of light yellowy taupe and cement, and gray and blue from the tarps. There’s dust everywhere, and a purplish-gray haze of dust, smoke, and air pollution over everything. People seem to eat two meals a day (one in the morning, and one in the late afternoon), and I could smell chicken cooking in preparation. Behind the food smells, the air would be thick with the smell of open fires in every household burning whatever is at hand.

Haiti: The Caribbean International Highway

Over the course of my trip to Port-Au-Prince, four different people approached me to ask if I’d heard about the Caribbean International Highway, an underwater highway theoretically currently being constructed between the US and Haiti. That’s right, an underwater highway between the US and Haiti. By way of Cuba, in fact.

Let me be clear: THERE IS NO HIGHWAY. It is a hoax, fiction, not real. There never has been, and never will be, an long underwater highway like this, here or any other place. It would be impossible, because it would be extremely difficult to build, and be far more expensive than it would be worth.

The fact that this idea is so absurd as to be stupidly ridiculous is not the point of the story. Nor are the numerous responses I made explaining the (blindingly obvious!) fact that the Caribbean International Highway is a fiction: an internet hoax someone invented to drive traffic to his/her blog. What struck me was how ready Haitian people were to believe this story – even intelligent, fairly educated, reasonably worldly Haitian people. And what their credulity implies.

The first conclusion is obvious and not particularly interesting: most Haitian people are poorly equipped consumers of internet information. This is not a judgment; it’s an acknowledgement that finding, evaluating, and especially filtering information from electronic sources is a skill which, unsurprisingly, most Haitian people have not developed. Even those with regular internet access didn’t usually have the contextual understanding to appreciate the substantive difference between The New York Times website and the dozens of junk “news” sites that populate the web. I look at the picture below and laugh, because I see immediately that I’m looking at a regional map that someone pulled from a google image search and drew some colored lines on using some program not much more sophisticated than Microsoft Paint. In contrast, the Haitian people who approached me saw this picture as proof that the plan was underway.

For the people who approached me about the highway, the utter absence of any mention of the project in any reputable news source was meaningless. Usually this was for the reasons discussed above. For those better able to evaluate the credibility of different news sources, however, the silence in the mainstream media was simply evidence that “they” were keeping the project secret for some nefarious purpose. This brings me to a second and altogether sadder conclusion: Haitian people are very accustomed to secretive and often foreign powers making plans and decisions that change Haiti in ways that they themselves cannot control or influence. The combined effects of the many upheavals in Haiti’s history have made the idea of a secret underwater highway all too believable.

Moving forward, we can learn from the problems of their credulity: First, it is further proof of the need for increased opportunities for education in Haiti, and the need for computer skills and critical thinking skills to be part of that education. Second, the world needs to stop making actual nefarious plans that scapegoat the Haitian people, so that perhaps they can learn to trust us.

**P.S. After having posted this entry, I was surprised to find that traffic to our blog, via this entry, significantly increased. There are even more people than I would have expected looking for information on this!