It’s been nearly two years since I visited Haiti and a year since I’ve written about it on this blog. In a perfect world my silence here reflects how often I’ve thought about my time in the country, its problems and of course, this Develop Haiti-diaspora-aid news idea. In a perfect world.
Back then, I used to look ahead to what news coverage about Haiti would be like once the world and its money inevitably moved on. I see diaspora as key to developing Haiti because unlike the native-born, the world has a short attention span and ‘two-years-post-quake’ can’t make the coin jingle like ’6-months-post-quake.’ With barely enough bright spots to dimly light a dark room however, the English language information on offer generally sucks. The reason is simple: very few people if anyone with a stake in Haiti’s development (diaspora, NGO, business, donors, etc) demand better information.
Why should they? Journalism trainer Kathie Klarreich gives the best reason in a recent TIME op-ed but I doubt ‘the good of the country’ is sufficient motivation for anyone, including the diaspora. Until the public demands better, and that will take some time, I wonder if it can’t click the dislike button on the three dominant kinds of information that we currently get about Haiti.
I for one would like to call a general boycott on the Announcement. It’s easy to spot, there’s so much of it. Spend a week reading Haiti news sources and look for the overuse of the future tense, i.e. someone will do some Thing, someone is planning to, someone is donating, some Thing is being [insert verb here], a law will be passed, etc. It’s like reading air, all this text dedicated to future plans but not one word dedicated to evaluating whether the announced thing worked. It’s incredibly rare to come across news about how specific plans or projects are or aren’t working–and then, have that news be followed up in a frequent way. Spotty news coverage on a subject like, say, land reform, is like turning your flashlight on a burglar while he holds your TV, then turning it off an going to sleep for a year. TV’s gone and you didn’t even see how the burglar got away. News is about what happens after, not before.
The other problem with a news cycle dominated by press release is that it’s always a top-down distribution of information. We wouldn’t accept it if the New York Times reproduced White House press releases, but we accept them from any number of organizations operating in, or, planning to do something in Haiti. Decision-makers set the agenda and most troubling, the parameters of discussion about what’s even possible in Haiti. Why assist by redistributing and tacitly legitimizing this point of view?
Haitian art, music and culture get perhaps the most generous and most frequent news coverage with short shrift going to hard fields like economics, politics, infrastructure and foreign aid. I’ve often wondered if that imbalance is one reason that many find it so easy to talk or write about Haiti, the land of art and culture, as though it’s a figment of their imagination.
Take my inability to ‘let go’ of the diaspora idea that motivated me to go to Haiti. Many describe what I see as a professional and loosely Pan-African interest as yet “another foreigner falling in love with Haiti and Haitians.” For the record I don’t love either. Infatuation with a movie star (hello, Idris Elba and Michael Fassbender), I get. But falling in love with a country when you’ve only seen three corners of it or ‘a people’ when you’ve only spent close time with 10, I don’t understand. I mean, it’s a nation-state, a political creation meant to impose order–a practical, eat-your-vegetables, unsexy beast that feasts on the saintly and the selfish alike, all in the name of stability. What’s to love?
But this ‘love’ of the country and its people–really, the idea of what those two are or should be–is quite popular when discussing Haiti. So too, is its opposite.
In the last month or so for example, I’ve had a black American church-goer and sometime-missionary tell me, “He looks like a Haitian,” as if I had given a secret password at the start of our conversation and automatically knew what she was talking about. We weren’t even talking about Haiti. Then separately, a white aid worker, not American, complained about Haitians’ laziness and lack of desire to better themselves. Both interactions remind me that the love fest for Haiti and Haitians (‘resilient’ is a common adjective; ‘hidden’ beauty a selling point) is partly a defensive tic against open disgust and discrimination. OK, I’m sensitive to that. But both also deserve mistrust.
One wants to weave a fairy tale, the other a nightmare interpretation of a place and people. Both require that you see Haiti through the caul of your personal experience and, 10 million individuals, as a composite of one person, good or bad. Neither view serves the purpose of helping Haiti to build back better. Again, this is another type of Haiti ‘news’ that I want to tell proponents to keep to themselves.
If announcements were censored and glossy doe-eyed interpretations banned, along with its hateful opposite, what would remain of English language information about Haiti? Would the news pot shrink from cauldron to tea-cup-sized? Besides coverage of the Haitian presidency, it seems these three comprise all text and images circulating about Haiti and therefore, its dominant narrative. That’s unfortunate. Because while a majority live in unnecessary squalor, the only news narrative worth constructing and redistributing is one that focuses on what works for the population or the country and what doesn’t. Nothing else is as important. Our preferences as consumers of Haiti news should reflect that.