Perspective on Haiti—the bigger picture.

Last Tuesday’s earthquake bringing death and destruction to Haiti is just the latest of disasters to befall this nation. In just the eight years since I have been involved in and traveling to this nation, the country has also been twice devastated by hurricanes. This tiny nation finds itself in an unfortunate geographic spot, which is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. Candidly, Haitians have made it worse. Deforested landscape tends to fare much worse in hurricanes. Buildings, often little more than shacks, built without regard to any building code, certainly not earthquake protection, do much worse in earthquakes. As bad as these natural disasters have been, and they have been very bad, Haitians’ real problem is poverty.

Since I have been involved in helping Haitians for eight years and have traveled to this nation seven times during these years, I thought I would share some insights with my friends, many of you having reached out to me at this time when the whole world is closely focused on this nation and asking questions on why things are so bad.

Haiti is where Columbus landed in the “new world” and while his discovery would bring good things to so many in the future, it was not a good thing for the natives of Hispaniola, the Taino people. Those who were not brutally massacred by the settling Europeans soon died of diseases brought by them. By some counts, more than one million Taino perished. After a colonial period which included French occupation long enough to leave behind the French language in its local Creole version, Haiti in 1804 became the second democracy in the Americas, following the United States by just 28 years. Since the native people were basically eliminated in the 1400-1500’s, the vast majority of Haitians trace their ancestry to Africa and the slave trade that used Haiti as a stopping ground on the way to the US southern states.

Haiti is a mess. Unfortunately, this is not just because of the earthquake. Haiti was a mess before the earth shook. Most everyone knows Haiti is, by every measure, our hemisphere’s poorest nation. At various times occupied by other countries including the US from 1915 to 1934, Haiti right now relies on a small UN security force for basic security. Haiti is like no other place I have visited in the Caribbean, or for that matter, Africa. Police and basic health care, simply don’t exist. Most buildings are ramshackle. I took a real-estate developer to Haiti with me some years ago, who pronounced after a long drive, “Everything should be torn down. There is nothing worth saving.”

It is hard to overstate just how dysfunctional Haiti is. Several years ago when I was in Port Au Prince, a city of some 800,000, there was reportedly one working traffic light. I know I only saw one working. There were just a few hotels that NGO types stayed in. Two of them, the Montana and the Villa Creole, where I stayed, are now completely rubble as a result of the earthquake. The Montana has been in the news because of the Teaneck woman’s and two companions’ remarkable escape after three days under the debris and the US college students staying there who are still missing.

My work in Haiti since 2001 has been with orphanages and the YMCA. The fact that orphanages are such a big factor in Haiti (Project Espwa in Les Cayes where I have assisted, has 680 boys) is itself a sad statement. Haitian families, unlike those in so many areas of the developing world, in Africa for example, often cannot watch out for their own. On the contrary, Haitian parents often are literally forced to sell their children into slavery, the boys for work, the girls as servants or worse.

I have heard TV commentators and a former president say, in the last couple of days, that the Haitian people are resilient and optimistic. I am not sure this is accurate. They are resilient only in that they are long-suffering. Unfortunately, even in the suffering they have sometime tended to violence. Worse, after almost three hundred years of poverty, too often Haitians have become more resigned than resilient in my view. Many, if not most, have at some level, given up. Come to think of it, who wouldn’t?

 Please do not take this harsh view as an indictment of the Haitian people, just, a realistic take on how deep the problem is; generations deep, culturally deep. A problem that money alone, won’t begin to fix.

In my experience, every single international helping organization and church mission program already has some presence in Haiti, by one count a staggering 40,000 NGOs, the largest segment of the Haitian economy. If you are in the mission and helping business, Haiti is the front lines, and you had better be there.

With all this help, why are things such a mess and the problems so intractable? One easy answer seems to be the lack of basic security provided by a reasonably stable government. It is a truism that without basic security, there is no tourism, and as tourism is the basic cash generator in the Caribbean, without it a country will not have the cash or jobs to build a better society. So one answer is to fix the government, at least enough to get in place basic security and infrastructure so tourists and their dollars can come, and build from there. This solution has worked elsewhere.  However, realistically Haiti is no “little scenic tropical island.” With 10 million people and a very dysfunctional and deep hole, this solution will take a long time.

Haiti’s political structure has been run for decades by a half dozen strong Haitian families, who in my view, likely really do not want change. These folks are doing well and live comfortably. Democracy, almost always a flawed system when serious essential needs are in play has really come off the rails in Haiti in terms of providing needed leadership. This said, it is important to note that there are many Haitians who care deeply and who want to change. A substantial number of these, however, are Haitians who have spent time out of the country, many times having to give up their Haitian citizenship and become part of the diaspora. The Haitian diaspora in Canada, the US and elsewhere sends contributions home that constitute the largest annual source of revenue to the country. Yet, in the world of Haitian politics, the diaspora is not permitted to own land in Haiti or to hold office on their return. These folks clearly need more political power and the ability both to vote, own land and to invest in Haiti. I say this because one thing I believe more than anything after 20 years of working on developing nations is that real solutions must come from within and not from well-meaning outsiders. I say this as a certified badge-carrying “well-meaning outsider.”  Haitians must fix Haiti.

So what do we do right now. Absolutely, help if you can by giving support to NGOs that are trying to meet the basic human needs of suffering Haitians—-estimates run as high as 3 million of the 10 million population. I won’t make a recommendation since I had trouble figuring this out myself and felt, after the fact, that I may have bet wrong on the Red Cross with Katrina. Second, be proud, as I am, that our government is taking the lead through our armed services and seems to now have the ability to go in and mobilize and facilitate much of the critical first response and security needs, no easy task in Haiti.

My real message to those of you who read this is that when the dust clears and Haiti slips from the front pages again and the celebrities lose interest, try not to forget this place of great need. Support programs that are willing to invest one step at a time in building a better Haiti. Support especially Haitians that are at the front of this. How about WMF? What is the Wells Mountain Foundation doing in Haiti? In addition to our scholarships to Haitian students (Gaspar Edmond is safe and back in Santo Domingo and in his clinical year of medical school) and our work with Project Espwa, the orphanage in Les Cayes, WMF has been deeply involved in the YMCA d’ Haiti since 2002. This YMCA, which started in 2000, now has three branches, one in Port Au Prince —destroyed in the earthquake, one in Camp Perin— happily fine, and one in Kenscoff, which was started just last year with the underwriting of WMF — also standing and right now sheltering earthquake victims. The Port Au Prince YMCA will need rebuilding and contributions for same are welcome. The YMCA d’ Haiti is about esteem-building and education, both WMF mainstays, and it is run by Haitians. All three YMCAs feature libraries with large sections of books in English supplied by WMF.  This work is slow, but the drum beat of progress is steady and, as I have often said, if there is only one thing you can fix, go first for education.

Right now, not as “first response,” but for the all important second wave (even before we can build buildings), we are running a clothing drive seeking lightly used summer clothes and footwear. We will send a container as soon as we fill it up. Last week, the clothing company Aeropostle, popular with teens, donated 10,000 pairs of jeans through Do Something, Inc. to start this effort. We just learned that they will add to this as many as 50,000 more pairs to be donated by their customers as part of their annual “Jeans for Teens” program. Now all we need is the tee shirts! If you want to help on this, just gather clothes and then let us know where to pick them up. Posters for collection places are available. Through the YMCA, we will work to organize a team to go to Haiti, probably in April or later, when a safe visit is possible. This will be part of the second wave and will be for folks willing to help on the rebuilding effort.

Giving back from our blessings to those less fortunate, is to me, what life is all about. Despite my lawyer-like cold logic in what I have written here, I believe Haiti can prosper and that the Haitian people deserve our support. It will not be easy, but it can happen. The sun will shine again; in fact it may be shining now. Perhaps we just need to open our eyes to see its glory.

Thomas M. Wells, Esq.
Wells, Jaworski & Liebman, LLP

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