Recovery on this island nation depends on use of local resources

Haiti is an enigma. Once the richest colony in the Caribbean, Haiti today is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Unemployment runs at 70 per cent.

Haiti is the world’s first black republic, yet it still tolerates a form of child slavery.

Impoverished parents place their children in the homes of strangers as domestics, hoping that there they will have a better life. But these four- to 18-year-olds receive no pay for all their hard work. They are the first up and the last to bed. They often sleep on the floor. Many eat one meal daily – scraps at best.

World Vision estimates there are about 300,000 “Restavek” children in Haiti. Three-quarters of them are girls. Almost all the children are physically abused. A quarter of the girls are violated by the men living in the house. Three-quarters have never been enrolled in school. Only two per cent reach high school. Of those who run away, 32 per cent become street children.

Haitian girls as young as 12 are encouraged by their destitute parents to enter the sex trade for clothes, food and tuition.

The child sponsorship programs of agencies such as World Vision, International Child Care and Foster Parents Plan significantly reduce child bondage and child prostitution and encourage education.

Hand-out mentality

One thousand aid groups operate in Haiti, a country of 7.5 million people. But too much aid is given away, undermining local industries, promoting a hand-out mentality.

Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) urges aid organizations to invest money in Haiti. “Don’t give it away. Haitians don’t want us to do it for them – they want to be in control.” Ron Braun of MEDA says, “The history of Haiti is money given poorly.” Instead he advises, “Invest in (local) business, education and micro-credit unions.”

For years, well-meaning groups have flooded Haiti with used clothing. It is common to see Haitians wearing apparel with North American logos and slogans. Yet this free clothing devastates the local clothing industry since Haitian tailors can’t compete.

“Haiti is the Wild West of the development world,” says Dan Weins, who with his wife Wilma, directs Mennonite Central Committee programs in Haiti. “There are a lot of lone rangers who do their own thing, never taking any advice from groups which have been here a long time.

“New groups can undermine the work of organizations which are committed to long-term programs which emphasize local initiative and investment,” Weins maintains. “You can be on one side of the mountain, operating a program which emphasizes the participation of local people, doing things which require them to take some responsibility and ownership. Meanwhile on the other side, a group comes by and gives away free food or aid.”

The result is “a nation of beggars,” says Guy Labbe, a Haitian who manages a local factory which tries to assist people through job creation. “All this charity has made Haitians think they have an incurable disease called poverty. They think they can’t help themselves.”

Local business

Jean Claude Cerin, a Haitian who directs MEDA’s programs in Haiti, believes there are times when aid can be given away, such as when there is a natural disaster or when vulnerable people such as the elderly or children aren’t getting enough food. “But even in these cases efforts must be made to buy food locally, to support local businesses.”

Self-reliance and local staffing are crucial goals in any valid humanitarian venture. Donors should critically evaluate whether a project will empower its recipients or merely provide an ego trip for the leader. Foreigners may initiate projects but if such work is to transform Haitian culture, it must be sustainable when the foreigner departs.

On any school day, hundreds of students travel the roads in colorful uniforms. But not all children attend school because even public education is not free. To cover the costs of tuition, uniforms, books and shoes, some peasants send one son to class one month and his brother the next – in the same uniform. Some local churches help subsidize education. The literacy rate of Haiti is only 56 per cent. MEDA offers adult literacy classes with its work projects.

Haitian education is modelled on memorization. There are concerns that students are not schooled in critical or creative thinking.

Until recently, French was the official language of Haiti yet only the wealthy four per cent of the population speak French fluently. Most Haitians speak Creole.

Only the first two grades are taught in Creole, then French becomes the language of instruction. As a result, most Haitians can speak Creole but not read or write it. If they can read French, they often cannot speak it. Critics argue that once a student can confidently read, write and speak Creole, French should be taught as a second language.

One orphanage is trying to offset the poor self-esteem children feel who are taught that their mother tongue isn’t worth learning. Maison de Benediction Children’s Home in Callebasse, sends its children to the regular Haitian schools. But its own after-school enrichment program is taught in Creole.

Scarce medical aid

In Haiti, there is only one doctor for every 7,140 people. Most are concentrated in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, so there are even fewer doctors available in the countryside. Even Haitians who live near a hospital cannot always afford entry. Life expectancy for a Haitian is only 55 years. Haiti has strict abortion legislation but its maternal and infant mortality rates are the worst in the Caribbean.

While the country is officially Catholic and heavily evangelized by Protestants, many Haitians still practice voodoo.

Given the limited access to an affordable, Western model of health care, it is not surprising that traditional medicine and voodoo practices have retained their popularity with the Haitian people. Especially in the countryside, clinics staffed by nurse practitioners who can offer primary and preventive health care are crucial.

John Ackerman is one such nurse. “I’m cheap,” he jokes, “but I’m not free.”  He sees about 55 patients a day and each week travels to several clinics in the countryside. He charges four Haitian dollars ($2 Cdn) for a consultation and medication. On the recommendation of a local pastor, he will waiver the fee for the destitute.

In Haiti, breastfeeding is not socially acceptable. This is doubly dangerous for a population that cannot obtain clean drinking water easily.

Breast milk protects infants from numerous infections but not AIDS. Of the 3.8 million children infected with AIDS worldwide, half contracted the infection at their mother’s breast. Yet even in a heavily infected country such as Haiti, 70 per cent of mothers do not carry the virus and for them, breastfeeding is still the best option.

Building trades

Habitat for Humanity is helping poor Haitians learn building trades as they construct modest housing for themselves. Most Haitian peasants live in small, one-room huts with thatched roofs or tin roofs weighed down with rocks to survive hurricane season. Their homes have no electricity or running water.

Ironically the dead seem housed more substantially than the living. A Haitian cemetery looks uncannily like a cheerfully painted village, the sepulchres in better condition than many homes. You get more respect in Haiti dead than alive. Funerals are bigger occasions than weddings.

The wealthy live in fortress homes surrounded by high walls topped with broken glass to deter thieves. There are only five televisions for every 1,000 people.

About eight out of 10 Haitians live in rural areas. Most farmers own less than two acres of land, barely enough to grow food for their families. The World Bank estimates that 85 per cent of the rural population lives on an income below the absolute poverty line of less than $1 (US) per day. In 1994, nearly two million Haitians were on local feeding programs, most funded by USAID.

Beyond Borders advocates food production for in-country consumption. It believes international aid given by the United States government, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund discourages farmers from producing food for local use.

“Corn, rice and beans given through USAID compete on the Haitian market with local produce,” argues Eddy Sterlin, Haitian staff member for Beyond Borders. “Because the aid is free, it has the effect of lowering the sale of Haitian produce.”

Haiti is a mountainous country but is so deforested, that only one-third of the land is suitable for cultivation. Peasants, desperate to generate an income, cut down trees to sell for charcoal, which furthers erosion.

Because of the cultivation of steep hillsides, some farmers have been know to fall to their death in their own fields. Fertilizers, which bleach the soil, are overused.

Phil and Lonnie Murphy supervise Maison de Benediction. For many years, the children’s home had been in congested, sweltering Port-au-Prince. But a relocation up mountain has brought more fresh air and freedom for the children and a chance to acquire strong agricultural skills. Each child tills a plot and profits from the produce sold.

Too often agronomists fly in from abroad to lecture the locals for a couple of weeks, then depart, their theories vanishing with them. The Murphys have gained credibility in their community by learning from the locals and farming themselves. When their methods produce large yields, local farmers take note.

The Haitian daily minimum wage is 36 gourdes ($1.50 Cdn). U.S. companies buy licenses for brand name clothing and then subcontract to Haitian factories. Workers have been hit hard by firings in some factories and by company pull-outs. Labor leaders suggest that the pull-out at a Walt Disney subcontractor was meant to weaken the efforts of those demanding higher wages for Haitian workers. They wanted a daily salary of at least 75 gourdes ($3.00 Cdn).

“I know of one Haitian who after 10 years of work had a cook pot to show for it,” said Pastor Herode Guillomettre, director of the Christian Centre for Integrated Development. “While they are hungry, the workers cannot refuse the salary offered.”

Night in a Haitian city is eerie. There are few street lights and many buildings lack electricity, so whole city blocks can be pitch black. Under cover of darkness bands of children roam, aggressively begging and stealing. It is not uncommon to have your arm scratched by a child attempting to nab your watch.

Success stories

Yet even amid city squalor there have been success stories. One Catholic monk, Brother Michael, grew frustrated with running a hostel for street kids. It provided shelter at night but threw the children right back on the street at daybreak. So he founded St. Joseph’s Orphanage for street children in Port-au-Prince.

St. Joseph’s so transformed these youths that many are now, as young adults, staffing another orphanage, Wings of Hope, in Petionville. Today former street kids tenderly care for disabled children amidst music and laughter. To become self-sufficient, Wings of Hope is building an adjacent guest house. Night can turn into day.

For further information call: Beyond Borders: 215-242-1553; International Child Care: 1-888-72CHILD; MEDA: 1-800-665-7026; World Vision: 1-800-268-5863.

(Sue Careless visited Haiti in February.)