Still ranting about our naivete in the face of Haitian poverty. One of my good friends was telling me about a story she’d heard where a woman was being treated on the USS Comfort for two legs and an arm all of which needed to be amputated. Now that medical ethics have caught up at least to the idea of informed consent, the surgeon asked her for her permission to do the amputations. She did not grant the permission. The surgeon was taken aback. The woman’s point was that in Haiti, for her to even imagine being able to work or make a living with just one arm was pointless. Her position was not one arrived at from depression or lack of get-up-and-go, it was, rather, a pretty rational assessment of her options. Why go through the additional trauma and fuss of the amputations when, as far as she could figure, she then wouldn’t be able to feed herself and would die slowly of starvation afterward? Once again, given some bad options, she took the least bad one and did not have the amputations.
This is among the kind of harsh realities that Haitians must always face. In a moment where I was trying to get my students to really understand what the conditions are like, I pointed out that there are no ambulances, no paramedics, no fire departments. “How do you get to the hospital when you need to?” they asked. How indeed. You get there as you can — walking, being carried, or more likely you just don’t get there.
And then there was the ridiculous and vile op ed piece that showed up in the Wall Street Journal the other day, the one written by some joker who spent two years running USAID in Haiti during Duvalier’s regime and never managed, as far as I can tell, to learn anything at all about Haiti. For instance, he pooh poohed the analysis of those who point to the mulatres of Haiti and the ways they have swung their power and influence around by saying that Papa Doc wasn’t from that class and he was president! Which completely ignores the way that Haitian politics and commerce have long worked, which is that the Negres like Papa Doc have the presidency and the mulatres have all the businesses. So no, the mulatres don’t run the government but because they have all the money, and since the government has virtually no income — 80% of its budget is international AID money — the government (corruption aside) isn’t exactly always ‘in charge’ in the ways one might imagine. It is also of course maddening that this guy claims that Vodou “has no ethics” whatever that means, which again bespeaks a pretty spectacular lack of knowledge about what he’s talking about. His main expert informant is — get this — his son in law who is Haitian and who he makes sure to note has a degree from Harvard which I suppose confirms that he is also smart. This is such a fantastic mini-model of the whole USAID problem, at least in Haiti. For USAID, Haiti is pretty much a punishment assignment and the US staff are basically working as hard as they can to get out of there and into somewhere ‘good.’ So rather than working to understand Haiti, Haitian culture or Haitian language, the whole ethos of USAID (and yes there are some great people who work there so I”m not trying to smear the entire place) is about impressing Washington so they can get the hell out. Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that impressing Washington and doing the right thing for Haiti just might not be exactly the same thing. So they’d also have these really dumb, paternalistic policies. For instance, when having trainings or other events for local Haitians, USAID doesn’t pay for food. This might seem like a small thing, but remember that quite often to get peasant leaders to come from their villages to the regional center might mean a five hour walk each way for them. “They’ll just be coming for the food,” was the excuse. Darn right. Heck I won’t go to faculty meetings where I work except for the free lunch. And how many food-laden receptions are these very same people going to on a regular basis?
Getting back to the Wall Street Journal thing, most offensive from the anthropological point of view is that this guy blames it all on culture, which again, he clearly knows nothing about. He can’t seem to tell the difference between Africa (which I wonder if he thinks it’s a country) and Haiti, and claims that because Barbados is doing OK this is proof that Vodou is the problem. Does the guy have the slightest notion of religious practices in Barbados? Clearly not, ’cause all that anglican looking stuff is not all it appears to be on the surface, that’s a fact.
I almost hate to put the link up, but here it is, see for yourself how ridiculous this thing is. Makes me nostalgic for something even remotely based in reality, no matter how right wing. Shame on the Wall Street Journal, really. What a lazy thinker. It’s a great example of lazy thinking, and a great example of exactly what I hope my students will never do. Be as right wing as you want, kids, just be smart and disciplined and use stuff like actual evidence to support your argument.