Category Archives: Poverty

Haiti has the unfortunate distinction of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The rain in Haiti

We had a little storm last night; my first glimpse of rain in Haiti. It continued into the day.

Nothing to write home about per se; blustery winds, a bit of rain, but still – even this minor blow seems to have brought a good part of town to a relative standstill.

Haiti was lucky this year; after a dreadful hurricane season in 2008, which undid much of the grudging economic progress of the previous two years, in 2009 the weather was relatively benign.

But I got a small sense of why storms wreak such havoc here. One relatively unremarkable windy rainshower, and the roads turn into slippery deathtraps, covered in branches, rubbish, gushing drains. (Sadly, my camera – which I stuck out the window on occasions – was covered in rain, and most of my snaps were unusable.)

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Finante, our nanny, was a no show, as were some of the people needed to put the finishing touches of our house (ie, water pump, which is still not working properly). I got the sense that much economic activity comes to a halt with the rain. I am not sure if it was related, but the internet was also down most of the day – apparently some issue with the cable to the Dominican Republic, Anna was told.

On the plus side (for me), the evil Route de Freres traffic jam was mercifully light, but the drive to our new house remained an exercise in caution – as the remaining vendors darted in and out of the road in all directions, skirting collapsed walls and rubble, skipping past torn overhead advertising banners (which hung perilously in the middle of the road, brushing passing cars).

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Sadly, the colors on new orange and pink building I have watched painstakingly painted over the past couple of weeks were already sporting runny blotches. Some parts of the market, garbage-strewn at the best of times, appeared pestilent.

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No wonder so much time is spent by aid workers here preparing for the next storm. But one hears worrying things – that despite Haiti’s increasing disaster preparedness, new developments are creating accidents waiting to happen: roads perched beneath piles of mud and rock, people living on deeply unsafe landfill and so forth. I dread what will happen when a real storm hits. That said, judging by one facebook update from a friend of mine in the UK, Haiti is not alone. “Snow, frost, rain, thunder and now a power cut…” it read. The veneer of civilisation is thin all over.

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Teaching Dorian about soldiers, resources and poverty

Dorian is increasingly curious about soldiers and guns. Given Anna’s job, and the number of UN peacekeepers we see patrolling around here, it’s inevitable.

Peacekeeping tap-tap

But it’s tricky to explain, without getting into uncomfortable territory.

D: “Why do they have soldiers?”
M: “So they can stop people fighting.”
D: “Why are they fighting?”
M: “Um. Because they don’t have enough money”.
D: “So they shoot them?”
M: “Well, they try not to shoot them.”
D: “Why do they have guns?”
M: “So that people listen to them.”
D: “Do they shoot the bad guys?”
M: “Well, they try not to shoot people. They try to put the bad guys in prison.”
D: “I wish we had a soldier in our house, to stop the bad guys”
….

Why don't they make toy peacekeepers?

D: “Why don’t they have enough money?”
M: “Because they are poor.”
D: “Why are they poor?”
M: “Because things don’t work so well here. And because some people ran away with the money.”
D: “Is Haiti broken?”
M: “Well, maybe a little bit… but you shouldn’t really say that. It’s not nice to say that.”
[Dorian has – to our great embarrassment – already explained to strangers that Haiti is broken and that Mummy is here to help fix Haiti]
D: “Why?”
M: “Because it might make some people sad.”
D: “Why does it make them sad?”
M: “Because they live here, and it is their country.”
D: “Do we live here?”
M: “Yes.”
D: “Why?”
M: “Because Mummy’s job is here.”
D: “Why?”
M: “Well, it is an interesting job.”
D: “She’s going to fix Haiti?”
M: “You shouldn’t say that.”

…..

D: “Poor Haiti is broken”.
M: “Well, it’s not really broken; but it needs to get better. You shouldn’t say that. Just to Daddy.”
D: “The pavement is broken. The electricity is broken. The road is broken.”
M: “Yes. They need to fix things.”
D: “Why can’t they fix them?”
M: “Because they don’t have enough money.”
D: “Did someone run away with the money?”
M: “Some people did.”
D: “Why?”
M: “Because they were greedy.”
D: “Do we have money?”
M: “Some.”
D: “Do we have lots of money?”
M: “Not really. Just some.”
D: “I don’t want the people to run away with our money.”

There is a purity to these questions, and I wish to encourage them. At the same time, some of it is so sensitive, and Dorian will inevitably repeat these things at inappropriate moments.

Also unsettling – he has quickly grasped some of the new power relationships in our world. Only this morning, he casually told our day guard to move his car seat from my temporary runaround to Anna’s UN car. He unquestioningly complied. We had to explain to Dorian there were certain things he should not do.

Still, I like to think all of this is positive, and will contribute to the education of a globally aware child. As long as he doesn’t turn into Little Lord Fauntlelroy in the meantime.

Little Lord Fauntleroy at the new 'Montana Village'... a striking drop of St Tropez chic in PAP

Haiti, the video game

After highlighting a webcomic a few posts back, I wanted to mention a relatively recent ‘serious video game’, called “Ayiti, the Cost of Life.”

You can find it here or here, and it doesn’t take too long to download if your internet connection is feeling generous.

An organisation called Global Kids produced the game a couple of years back with the help of Gamelab and the support of Microsoft; and teamed up with Unicef to host it and promote it.

Truth be told, it’s a fairly miserable experience, as you attempt to nurse mum, dad and three kids from poverty to prosperity. My family started off well enough, sending kids to school and getting a job in a distillery, but within a couple of seasons everyone was ill, depressed, flat broke, in debt and… well, I kind of quit at that point.

Here is a distressing message I received early on in the game:

After the first year, your family is in terrible shape. The Guinard family’s wealth suffered greatly this year. Take care to ensure the family gets its basic needs. The family’s overall health diminished significantly this year. Jean, Marie, Patrick, Jacquline and Yves had a particularly hard year, greatly deteriorating in health. The family had an opportunity to study and increase its education.

The game implies that with the right strategy you can pull yourself out of your predicament, perhaps one day buy yourself a computer and other first world appliances – so the tantalising prospect of a better life is dangled before you. But the grim toll of poverty is made abundantly clear.

Perhaps too clear, in fact. This is a difficult game, and the message it sends is so bleak one wonders what room it leaves for human dignity: surely a crucial component in any socially conscious game.

My other, lesser, gripe was that it managed to sneak in a few blatant promotions for Oxfam and Unicef, sending an unfortunate message about reliance on aid agencies. Then again, it is what it is.

Still, I do think this was an important attempt to use the awesome communicative power of games to educate the rich on the grinding challenge of being poor.

I’m going to have another shot at it. Maybe I shouldn’t have bought that radio.

Aid, priests and sexual misconduct

International assistance and sexual exploitation have, sadly, often gone hand in hand; during the middle part of this decade, I was one of the reporters who covered the story of misconduct by UN peacekeepers in Congo and beyond, while Anna worked on a seminal report on the issue with the charismatic Jordanian UN ambassador Prince Zeid.

At the time, the scandal was used as a stick with which to beat the UN by its detractors in the United States – although that same country subsequently led opposition to UN efforts to create a more effective disciplinary system. The UN has nonetheless, within its limited powers to control the troops of member states, implemented an official ‘no tolerance’ policy, and the rules in Haiti appear quite strict – we quickly learn a long list of no go zones, such as certain bars, where officials may not tread.

But the UN has no monopoly on such practices. Abuses occur wherever powerful people from rich countries find themselves in proximity with the poor, and it comes as no surprise to discover this piece in the  Windsor Star (thanks to Povertynewsblog for finding it).

Youth who claims he was abused by a Canadian aid worker - according to the Windsor Star

“He was 16, and like most Haitian teens, surviving on street smarts. One day, he accepted a job helping a humanitarian aid worker carry supplies to his home.

‘After I finished he asked me to come back for a talk,’ recalled the man, now 23, speaking Creole through an interpreter. The aid worker offered him money for sex, the man alleges, and a relationship began.

‘It was to pay for school for me. That was the main reason. If you do it for me I pay for school.’

Mission sex — it’s Haiti’s dirty little secret.

The western world’s poorest country is, according to one aid worker, a ‘perfect storm’ of socio-economic conditions for abuse by visiting humanitarians. Its tropical temperatures and breathtaking natural beauty are easily, and cheaply, accessible from North America. Heavily dependent on foreign aid and with virtually no regulation of its schools and orphanages, Haiti’s justice system is ill-equipped to deal with a rising tide of sex tourism.”

[UPDATE – The Montreal Gazette has also written on the matter in this piece ‘When evil is cloaked as good

His 12 years of good deeds with impoverished kids prompted Association Grandir, the humanitarian group to which he was aligned, to dub him “a true Father Teresa.”

“You have to see him among the people, eating and sleeping as they do, to understand that a commitment like his is a rare thing,” Grandir said on its website.

Five years later, Father Teresa is a Quebec prison inmate.

Huard, 65, was sentenced to three years for sexually assaulting young Haitian boys while a second Quebecer, Denis Rochefort, 59, received two years.]

Sex tourism appears to have been fairly prevalent in Haiti during the Duvalier era, but took a dip after the Aids epidemic – and subsequent (misguided) claims that Haiti had exported Aids to the US. Most likely, it was the other way round.

These cases remind us it remains a serious issue, and might become more so as Haiti grows a little more stable. Most disturbingly, two priests are separately facing sexual abuse charges:

John Duarte, 43, former leader of the Windsor-based Hearts Together For Haiti, was recently arrested by Dominican authorities on a warrant issued in Canada, on charges of sexually abusing teenage Haitian boys – according to the  Windsor Star. Douglas Perlitz, 39, was indicted in September by a grand jury in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and faces 10 counts related to the sexual abuse of nine boys for about a decade, CNN reported.

Joao Jose Correira Duarte, a former Windsor priest, is now facing extradition to Canada, where he's expected to face 12 charges in the sexual abuse of Haitian youths, age 12 to 17, the Immigration Office and National Drug Control Directorate said in a statement sent to Canwest News Service. Photograph by: Handout, CNS Source Windsor Star

One is left wondering about the religious sector in general.

Despite the Catholic priest scandals of the past decade, I am not aware of any major focus upon missionary work. Haiti is awash with religious groups, largely unregulated and unsupervised.

One suspects the vast majority of such endeavours – as those of UN officials and NGO staff – is extremely well-intentioned. But wherever power is wielded without scrutiny, abuses occur.

With so many missions in Haiti, it might be a valuable endeavour to take a closer look at the spiritual, as well as the profane.

Tap-taps, Edith Piaf and Assez de la Misere

Every day I spend countless minutes watching Haitians in the back of tap-taps.

Tap-taps are the predominant public transport here; creaking pick up trucks with a bench on either side, mounted by a jury rigged plastic or metal roof, which squeeze in 10-12 people.

Every developing country has its version of the tap-tap. In Kenya, where I lived for five years, it was the matatu: mad mini-buses that menaced the highways in swarms. Those matatus were deeply unpopular, and always entrenched in some great battle with either the public or the authorities – neither of which could do without them.

I remember having a small altercation with a matatu; my fault entirely. But everyone on the street, all the witnesses who could have implicated me, unanimously declared the matatu driver to be the culprit. Coward that I was, I did not protest.

Anyhow, in Haiti it is the tap-tap. Often a nondescript white, but as likely to bear garish paint jobs proclaiming Jesus’ love, gaudy decorative flourishes bequeathing striking individual identities. One I spotted had large metal hands sticking menacingly from its sides – no doubt to force other road users to keep their distance. Good idea.

Merci Jesus... the ride is almost over

Marie-Rose, who helps clean at our house, tells me they cost from 5-10 gourdes (25c) for a ride. There are some proper buses (the one from Petionville into town is known as the ‘Obama’), but these simply aren’t sufficient to meet demand, she explains, and for the most part the tap-tap is the only option.

I excuse myself for not showing solidarity by taking the tap tap because of my children, but I know deep down I would have avoided them anyway. I certainly shunned matatus in Kenya. Tap-taps are miserable bone-jarring affairs. If you are unlucky enough to find yourself stuck at the end of the bench, you face long minutes sweating beneath the blazing sunshine, breathing diesel fumes, and generally – I suspect – praying for the damn traffic to get a move on.

[UPDATE: I draw your attention to Ansel’s comment below. By its nature this is an impressionistic blog, fueled by biases both conscious and unconscious, and I have a lot to learn. I am always happy to be corrected.]

Yet I can’t help watching the tap-tap and their passengers. I always seem to be stuck behind one in Haiti’s eternal traffic jam. I am transfixed. They stop and start erratically, diving in and out of curbs (so much for the ‘arrete tap-tap’ signs) and pose a constant hazard. (Add that to potholes, mad truck drivers, and hordes of people walking in the road at every point, and every drive in Port au Prince becomes an adrenaline fuelled obstacle course.)

I feel like a denizen of Versailles, venturing out in his gilded carriage, hypnotized by the sights without. I want to take more photos – tap-taps would make a great essay, I think – but for the most part I can’t bear to do so. Snapping pics of transport hell from my air-conditioned 4×4 of others’ public transport hell feels dirty.

Tap-tap passengers often carry a blank, distant gaze, no doubt dreaming of elsewhere, willing the ride to be over. I wonder what the rules of eye contact are? Some people chat; some stare fixedly into space.

It is impossible to stay poised in a tap tap. Occasionally passengers catch my eye, quickly look away. There is no dignity in being watched in a tap-tap. (I am struck by Marie-Rose’s lack of complaint at her own tap-tap rides, which must be gruelling. She works for two families. It is what it is, I guess. Today, I discovered her uncomplainingly washing herself in a bucket in our back yard and felt awful. I told her she should really use the spare bathroom upstairs. I was shamed by how grateful she was.)

Surreal musical accompaniments drift over the car radio. One moment it is Edith Piaff – ‘les trois cloches’ – warbling French chanson, instant nostalgia that fits surprisingly well with the ambiance. Then a jaunty jingle: “assez, assez, assez… assez de la misere”.

School bus?

I listen to one academic, in love with his own diction, railing against the UN. “Le Minustah, les Nations Unis, Mr Annabi, Ban Ki-Moon… excusez moi l’expression, mais c’est toute la meme merde.” He stresses each “i” in the series. An occupation without vision, he calls it. The interviewer politely suggests that the UN is there to provide security while Haitians provide the vision. The academic blusters. It’s not as much fun having to blame yourself.

All the while, I conduct a constant chit-chat with Dorian in the back of the car, who quizzes me relentlessly about this or that sight. The world of money is beginning to dawn in his four-year old mind.

Why is the road so broken? Haiti has no money. Why does it have no money? It’s complicated. Do we have money? Yes, some money. Can I buy a car for my birthday?” and so on…

At one junction, young children start tapping on the window asking for cash. Dorian starts to press down the electric window button to say hi to his new friends. I tell him to put the window back up (feeling a bit of a heel, but protection of my kids comes first).

Dorian asks me why I didn’t let him play with them. “They want to take your money,” I said. He looks rather sad, almost weepy.

“But I don’t want them to take my Mummy.”

On house arrest, regret, reading gawker from Port-au-Prince and the therapeutic effect of traffic jams

A mild sensation of house arrest (I know, I know… hear me out before ye judge). The transport issue remains unresolved, so I have been getting two brief trips a day beyond these four walls – to deposit and collect Dorian from school. Tomorrow that will be reduced to one. I feel a little trapped.

There is a common emotional cycle amongst expats in challenging poor countries: elation (all those new sights and sounds!), slump (what am I doing here when I could be there?), then equilibrium. This cycle can play out repeatedly over multiple timeframes, and rarely fully disappears.

This is not entirely helped by finding oneself reading gossip on gawker.com about the latest celebrity bar in New York, and how fabulous it all is; although one finds comfort in snarky reader comments decrying said celebs as worthless.

In these moments of reflection, a nasty and dangerous parasite called regret can sometimes rear its ugly head. Regret is an insidious worm. It writhes in the creases of the mind, and casts pernicious shadows over past decisions. One’s better nature counters with rationality, with practicality and perspective (this too shall pass), but the worm slithers deftly past these defenses and burrows ever deeper.

Regrets? What's he talking about? He's got it made.

Yet help arrives from an unlikely quarter. The traffic jam on Port-au-Prince’s Route de Freres is a permanent fixture, and as one settles into its unhurried rhythm one cannot help but contemplate – as an expat – how carefree one’s life remains.

Hey mate - when you've finished feeling sorry for yourself, how about you buy an aubergine?

Market stall women crouch all day on dirty patches of crumbling concrete, beside stinking mounds of vegetable refuse. Sweating porters struggle past with overloaded wheelbarrows, finding scant purchase with collapsing tennis shoes, most likely cast offs from the US. The radio blasts a steady stream of uplifting Caribbean tunes; Benson tells me how, since the day he was born, he never knew a president who did not eventually run away from Haiti carrying with him all his ill-gotten gains.

Traffic jam? Pah. I'm a cop on a buggy. See me roar.

Benson is a trained network engineer; he has found no proper work since 2004 and is now driving expats kids to school. His wife, a university trained manager, has found no work either. It is an exercise in humility for intelligent people. Yet Benson finds genuine pleasure in playing the “sticky!” game with my three year old, and tells me of his struggles without any apparent resentment of the fact that mine are so minor in comparison.

At the school kids crowd round me while I cuddle Dorian goodbye, and I snap a shot of their fun-filed faces. I am looking forward to telling stories from this place, if only I can find an audience.

Kids wave to me at nursery school

On the salaries of domestic staff

An uncomfortable early task is to negotiate the salaries of domestic employees.

Haiti, as every article ever written about the island is quick to state, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. (There. I have written it too now; a rite of passage.) This means salaries are low.

Nothing like Chiclets gum to while away those hours spent walking

It also creates a certain tension. You don’t want to rock the boat (and potentially skew the local economy) by paying too much, you don’t want to seem like a soft touch, and – let’s be honest here – one of the benefits of living in a developing country is, for us westerners, affordable domestic staff. It is one of Haiti’s very few ‘comparative advantages’ (a brutal euphemism for deprivation).

At the same time, for a confirmed liberal who has written many words about economic injustice, and who – in turn – is quick to condemn the grotesque salaries of western bankers at a time of financial crisis, paying poverty wages feels deeply hypocritical. You also want your staff to feel like they have a good deal. After all, they are looking after your children and keeping you safe.

So what to do? Well, basically you aim for a magical “fair wage” that offers staff a better opportunity than they would have otherwise, but still broadly in line with prevailing market conditions. The excuse you make is that – at least as a newcomer – you don’t really know who you are hiring, there will be a lot of training involved, so you will wait to see how they work out before offering a potentially more generous deal. (Experience from Africa suggests that people quickly forget these first world predilections, and settle into the local way of things. We shall see.)

Go to school, work hard, maybe you'll be able to negotiate a better salary

You also promise to yourself to treat your staff with dignity; offer them occasional luxuries from the fridge (luxuries they would never otherwise afford) – but at the same time not to create a sense of entitlement to your possessions. It is a constant balancing act.

For example, we hire Finante as a nanny. We discuss with a previous employer how much she is paid. We use what little knowledge we have about wages from other negotiations. We consider the task she faces. And thus, for this initial period, via various arcane and ultimately arbitrary calculations, we settle on the not-so-princely figure of 65 Haitian dollars, which is 325 Gourdes (Haiti’s evocatively named currency – which is around US$8 a day.

[Update. We lifted it to 400 gourdes a day. That is $10. Still not exactly high].

She makes a minimal effort at negotiation, but her heart does not appear to be really in it, and she accepts quickly.

It’s striking – unemployment is so high here that the employer is totally in the driving seat. A curious sensation to be the boss, after being on the other end of the transaction for so long. One can feel its powerful allure.

UN bureaucracy, solar ovens and lynchings

An entertaining piece of bureaucratic lunacy this weekend: Anna has a giant UN Nissan patrol car for the weekend, but we are not allowed to travel in it, so we drive around Port au Prince in two vehicles: myself, Benson the driver, and the two kids crammed into a taxi, Anna following behind regally in the monster truck.

Roadside relaxation

“Why am I not allowed in the UN car?” asks Dorian. “Mummy needs a piece of paper.” “When is Mummy going to get the piece of paper?” “I don’t know, we are trying to find out.” “But she can go in the car; why can’t I?” etc.

Hey there stranger

Saturday morning in the Karibe Hotel complex. Dorian meets a large red Digicel ball. Images of Digicel, the mobile phone company, are everywhere. Half of the roadside vendors are selling Digicel cards; clearly one of the major sources of casual employment here.

Dorian meets the Digicel ball

There is a Haiti energy conference going on at the Hotel. Someone is demonstrating solar ovens. They reminds me of one of those collars to stop dogs biting themselves when they have fleas.

Solar cooking

We shop in the ‘Caribbean supermarket’ – PaP’s mecca of tasty foreign tidbits. Half the UN is there. I snap a photo of a pickup truck full of young white nuns in a cage, who smile obligingly.

A pick-up truck of caged nuns outside the Caribbean supermarket

In the evening I am struck by the Caribbean’s clouds. Beautiful twirling shapes; they look like a cartoon. (I confess I am reminded of one of the great video games of all time – Monkey Island, which is set in the Caribbean.)

Sunday we head to a small expat birthday party. I meet some of the international fauna. World Bank, UN, etc.

Haitian gladiator

On the way we witness an unsettling scene of violence. I see a kicking pair of legs and a kid being dragged off the road. He escapes, and starts running for his life. We are driving alongside. A pursuer picks up a savage looking rock, and gives chase with a gang in tow. I watch the terrified kid’s face as he looks back, and runs harder – he misses the brute in front of him, who body checks him and sends the kid tumbling.

The kid falls, regains his footing and is almost surrounded. He limps into a side street. The last I see is an image of the rock wielding attacker gaining ground, darting after him.

Lynchings are common here. There is some debate about what to do if you have a car accident and knock someone over. Anna tells me the Haitian security personnel are adamant we should stop for nothing; and drive hell for leather. That said, in the UK the news over the past couple of weeks has been dominated by rampaging thugs. Violence is everywhere.

At the party the son of a Haitian gallery owner, with a dressed up Dominican girlfriend, hears word that Preval is dead. Some debate about this. Rumours are common here, here, but still… could Haiti’s recent stability be headed for rockier times?

Preval dead? Maybe, but we have faces to paint.

Pleasant party; delicious cakes from Haiti’s best bakery. We head home at 6pm – the streets are pitch black, but filled with people walking along the side. “Why is it spooky here?” asks Dorian. “It’s not spooky,” I answer. “But they have no electricity.” “Why do they have no electricity?” It’s a fair question.

Excellent music on the radio. Haiti definitely has groovy sounds in its favor.

That night Anna informs me that the kid’s bathwater has little wriggly red worms in it.