Tag Archives: Poverty

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.

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.