Ruth with her nephew, Wenshel Saintillus. Bois Jolie, Haiti. June, 2015.
Amidst all the hooha about the Red Cross inefficiently spending millions in Haiti, there is a perennial, widespread, attitude that troubles me. It goes something like this: Haiti is a troubled nation, and its people cannot articulate their needs or are capable of pulling themselves out of crisis states; Haitian communities are dysfunctional, and do not have self-organizing capacities; labelled as the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, most actions or interventions carried out by NGOs or other governments (AKA corporations and big business) should be considered as acts of kindness and benevolence, and with specific and explainable results.
While I cannot, and certainly do not want to, defend the Red Cross, I do feel that this case (and similar criticisms may be made of many other NGOs in Haiti and beyond) is far more complicated than ‘how can 500 million dollars only render 6 new houses?’. A more nuanced critique of the situation may include questions like, well, where did that money actually* go; how many Haitians does the Red Cross employ, and what do they actually do; has the Red Cross trained Haitians and put them on more secure economic pathways?
How much do NGOs, and the rest of us Western Hemisphericals, actually observe and converse with the people who we think are in need? Ruth, in this photograph, lives with her sister and brother in law. Actually, she lives next door, but spends much of her free time with infant Wenshel. This is a deeply rural community, where employment in the traditional sense hardly exists. Yet, they all work together. Wenshel’s dad farms, voluntarily participates in a payment for eco-systems carbon sequestration program, plays a guitar, makes beautiful furniture, and is a good photographer with a growing family photo album. The family engages in community discussions about susceptibilities, resilience and hopes for the future. They have food and shelter. There is a lot of love and kindness in this small mountainous region, which is a full 2 to 3 hour hike away from the nearest market town. There are great lacks, especially by Western standards, but the community has a self-defined civic system and leadership, can articulate its needs, and is anticipating its susceptibilities.
The Red Cross, and others, should spend more time with people like Wenshel’s family.
*The NPR article skims over this important question by just saying, “Ask a lot of Haitians — even the country’s former prime minister — and they will tell you they don’t have any idea.” I wonder whether the former prime minister, or his correspondent in the interview, the former United Nations deputy special representative in Haiti, are like ‘a lot of Haitians’.