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Ten Years Later: Haiti, Hope & A New Narrative

Contrary to what headlines say, a new story of hope is playing out in Haiti a decade after the earthquake. It's time to change the narrative there, and across the world.

A decade later, Haiti’s earthquake of 2010 is again making headlines. Sadly, most of the stories I’ve been reading about it aren’t getting at root causes for the magnitude of devastation Haiti suffered at the time, nor for the following lack of accountability and results for billions of dollars in aid.

Nor do most stories I’m seeing include a variety of perspectives. They revisit the failures without addressing real causes, and fail to find the successes and report on them.

Why is that?

All too similar is the recent headline of CNN’s Caitlin Hu article, “Today….many Haitians have little hope,” and that of Kirk Semple’s NYT October 2019 article about Haiti, which began with the words, “There is no hope.”

On this anniversary of the earthquake, it’s time to quit reiterating old narratives and create a new one. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not belittling the reporting of Hu, Semple, and others who are telling similar stories today. There is truth in them. But it’s not the whole truth.

Why don’t they also include perspectives like those I’ve heard recently from Haitians on the ground? Could it be because the approach to telling these story mirrors the approach to international relief and development assistance, and to the response to the earthquake itself?

The root causes of ongoing suffering in Haiti trace back to the fact that people closest to the problems have historically had the least say. When some voices count more than others, inequities grow. In Haiti’s case, they have grown to the breaking point.

A narrative created from the sole perspective a few voices doesn’t help the problem. It distorts and magnifies it.

A quarter of a million Haitians did not die ten years ago because of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Just two months later, when an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Chile, fewer than 1,000 died. Haiti’s catastrophe was not a natural disaster. It was of human making. Nor did it occur in 30 seconds on January 12, 2010. It began hundreds of years before that.

When the world began taking its toll on Haiti six centuries ago, the island was a land of riches. The world stripped its rainforests of mahogany for warships and fancy furniture. Trees were replaced with cotton and sugar plantations that leached nutrients which had for millennia provided ample nourishment for all living beings on the island. Eventually, without roots to hold it in place, the soil washed into the sea.

Even worse, though, was the taking of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Within a generation of Columbus’ landing on the island in 1492, the indigenous Taino were gone, dead from enslavement and the introduction of European diseases. Slaves imported from Africa fared nearly as badly. When they rose up and gained their independence, the world responded with embargoes, occupations, manipulation of elections and more. Haitians paid an egregious price, and continued to struggle for freedoms rightfully theirs. Their voice was barely heard on the world stage.

How does all of that relate to the billions of dollars misspent or unaccounted for after the earthquake? The top-down, outsider-dominant systems, oppression of the masses, and gross inequities that came with colonialism still exist to this day.

On this tenth anniversary of the earthquake it’s time to take stock and acknowledge that we have not yet recovered from the evils of our ancestors’ ways. After six centuries of outside-dominance, oppression, Haiti’s indigenous strengths have been eroded just as surely as has the topsoil that washed into the Caribbean, leaving a dark stain all along the Haitian coastline.

Though we know colonialism has done terrible harm in the world, we’re less likely to realize its lingering effects in institutions and systems, or to see how well-intended mindsets and actions can likewise cause harm.

There are many ways we can fall into traps. One is to misunderstand the difference between pity and compassion. Pity in the face of another’s suffering calls forth a savior response, which is springs from a place of inequality that is healthy for none.

Could inequality of voice and power be the common root cause for the deterioration of Haiti through the centuries, the horrendous death toll after the earthquake, and the international community’s failed relief efforts?

If that is the case (as I think it is) how do we start to realign the balance of power?

Maybe we could start by asking questions with a sense of genuine curiosity, with no preconceived answer. And maybe it starts with finding ways to bring more voices into the conversation, until all have an opportunity to be heard.

What does this have to do with today’s headlines that proclaim there is little hope for Haiti, or others which rue the squandering of aid money? Everything. When voices have equal access to the making of a story, it leads to a different ending.

In 1995, my Haitian friend Rodolphe Eloi said to me, “Haitians cannot have hope. It does not matter whether the dictator is tyrant or benefactor. We cannot have hope because we do not have a say in our own future.” 

That was the prevailing story in 1995. As headlines show, it still applies in many cases today. But it’s no longer the only one. For Eloi and others like him, the story has changed dramatically. 

Eloi lives in Léogâne, Haiti, the epicenter of the earthquake of 2010 and a city featured in the recent NYT article. He also spent 30 years working in villages that were decimated by Hurricane Matthew six years later.

“Yes, I have hope for Haiti!” Eloi says now.

Why the change? Since our conversation 25 years ago, Eloi co-founded the Haitian nonprofit Action Pour Sauver Haiti (APSHA) and became Senior Advisor to Creative Exchange Initiative. He is enacting his vision and leading transformative change in Haiti.

“I have more than hope for Haiti’s future. I have confidence in it!” Eloi goes on to explain: “After only three years, communities that were destroyed by the hurricane now have more food and better income than before. Through a program where farmers give back a goat’s offspring and seeds from harvest, they have already helped us to spread the work into four more villages.

Eloi believes in empowering education that builds leaders from the ground-up, and which employs a participatory democratic process where every voice counts. He is putting his belief into action.

 Jacky Poteau, Operations Manager for the Haiti Development Institute (HDI), a Haitian-led nonprofit, echoes Eloi’s optimism. “There is absolutely hope for Haiti. On a short-term basis, many of us are trying to build stronger communities throughout the country.” HDI equips local leaders with the tools, knowledge and skills to transform their communities and the nation.

“The long-term hope is in the children,” Poteau says. “Part of the reason a new Haiti is possible is because groups like Anseye Pou Ayiti (APA) have made it their mission to educate children differently so the country can have a new breed of citizens.”

APA, a movement for Haitians and by Haitians, works with communities to create a network of civic leaders and build an equitable education system based on shared history, values, and vision. They incorporate effective problem-solving, collaboration and leadership skills and foster civic pride.

Jean Marc Govain, Inspector of School Quality for the Haitian Ministry of Education and for MENFP (Haitian vocational training), says, “Haitian people’s hope for a better tomorrow can be read in our hearts and in our literature as much as in our experience. Hope dominates our words as well as our actions. It is Haitian’s hope that makes us so resilient.”

Govain says that people naturally lose hope in a government that is fundamentally incompetent, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost hope in general, or in the future. “We need a new political class capable of changing this system that benefits politicians and not the people.” 

APA graduate Naichka Leonard, now Director of Women’s Programs for CEI-APSHA, says, “Hope is our story. Hope is our pride. And hope is all that Haiti brings to the world. Our culture, land and climate. Haiti will rise again to regain its place in the world.”

Haitian after Haitian whom I polled echoed the sentiment expressed in the Kreyol proverb, "Toutotan tèt pako koupe li espere met chapo." As long as there is life, there is hope.

There is truth in no-hope narratives and exposés of corruption and misused funds. But it’s not the whole truth. Nor is it the narrative we want to continue to see played out in the world.

As Peter Buffett said in his 2013 Op. Ed piece for the New York Times, “Nearly every time someone feels better about doing good, on the other side of the world (or street) someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life…it’s time for a new story.”

The new story is being written in Haiti today. Haitians are living it and telling it.

How do we get that into the headlines?

Catherine Parrill consults with nonprofits, foundations, and their stakeholders striving to make transformative change from the ground-up. She is an international speaker and founding CEO of Creative Exchanges Initiative.

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