How well are Haiti activists mobilizing the crowd?

Panelists (L to R) Nancy Dorsinville, Taina Bien-Aimé and Alice Backer discuss Haitian women's absence in the reconstruction plan

Last Tuesday I attended another capacity-crowd diaspora panel, Reconstructing Haiti: Women at the Center subtitled, Where are the voices of Haitian women in the post-earthquake recovery of their country? Again I left this gathering of experts with the main question unanswered: if I want to help and complain–in this case on behalf of women–where is the best place to go?  The public square is full, the crowd’s fists balled but no one is yet telling it where to strike.

I have yet to hear The One speak at the flurry of post-earthquake meetings of various diaspora and allied groups. So now I focus on why not.  Without a tactician, it’s very possible that the crowd will remain a disorganized mass of well-meaning but politically impotent individuals.  Their contribution to Haiti will remain their tangle of separately-run humanitarian projects in the Republic of NGO’s. That’s not a good thing.

Tuesday’s panel went down, largely, no different from what I’ve heard before.  In fact, one audience member at the end described it as “constipated.” Sounds harsh but that’s not a comment on the panelists, themselves. More so, it’s a reflection of what they didn’t or can’t say before the crowd.  So in that sense, Tuesday’s panel was important because it demonstrated a consistent political problem when it comes to organizing for a foreign country, but also its solution.

More than 100 women and men turned up after work to find out about the needs of Haiti's women

First, what does the crowd want?  Let’s get real, it doesn’t take a panel of experts to answer the sub-titled question.  The 100-odd professional women who gathered after work already guessed the answer, probably from their own lives.  At one UN meeting of Haiti’s mayors, an American political staffer told me, only two out of roughly 40 were women.  I’ve attended numerous Haiti meetings with governing officials present: they are shockingly, overwhelmingly male.  (And bear in mind, mine is the shock of an American whose own country ranks somewhere near 100th in the world when it comes to women elected to political office.)

Tuesday’s standing-room only crowd came to find out how to insert women’s voices and needs into Haiti’s massive recovery plan.  Problem is, they can’t rightly expect to be told how to red-ink the official plan, by people who work within the very institutions tasked with rebuilding Haiti.  Far too often when the diaspora meets for panels, the crowd’s experts are institutional insiders.  Therefore conversation flows where it can–not towards strategy, which is where it needs to go.

For example, Nancy Dorsinville, a special advisor to the Bill Clinton’s UN Office of the Special Envoy, (over?) emphasized that she was “here as a Haitian-American woman,” not, I repeat, not as a representative of the United Nations. Her preemptive protests unfortunately came across as defensiveness, which, in polite company, shuts down critique.  It’s not like this gathering was Move On bearing down on a wounded Sarah Palin with her own machine gun.  Everyone in attendance was on the same side; they’re not going to bloody their own.

Moderator Maria Hinojosa (far right) takes questions from audience members

Criticism of how the post-earthquake recovery neglected women’s needs came from the two other panelists, Taina Bien-Aimé and blogger, Alice Backer both of whom represented one of the panel sponsors, coalition group, PotoFanm+Fi.  Bien-Aimé, executive director of international women’s human rights organization Equality Now, reported that she hadn’t seen the UN’s well-documented commitment to women implemented on the ground in Haiti.  But my ears perked when she said that she’d recently returned from Haiti as part of a UNIFEM delegation.  Bien-Aimé spoke her mind, it seems, but it’s fair to presume some degree of self-muzzling at a public event if the UN (and its considerable resources) is a sometime partner.

I don’t expect Bien-Aimé and certainly not Dorsinville to deliver the how to the crowd.  They are invaluable partners and in the case of Bien-Aimé a critical advocate but they are not mobilizers, which is what the diaspora needs, now.  It needs activist-tacticians who will mobilize and direct the crowd to influence the decision-makers, and who see political opportunity in the fundamental tension forming between reconstruction officials and the aid community.

An audience member demonstrates the power of the Netroots.

Which brings me to a solution to these helpful but also limiting incestuous relationships: outsiders.  A former community organizer-turned-institutional insider, President Obama, has remarked on many occasions that the public has to pressure him to do the right thing.  It is always the outsiders who’ve forced socially responsible policies on institutions.  The U.S. government didn’t wake up one day and decide to end child labor, institute the 40-hour work week, create social security, enforce voting rights, etc.  Organized outsiders forced the social benefits we now take for granted on the government.  The same has to happen in Haiti if reconstruction is to benefit ordinary Haitians as much as it’ll benefit the monied interests (architects, construction, builders, telecommunications, etc) who began rolling out recovery plans on January 12.

“Where’s the anger?” asked Anne-christine d’Adesky, a lead organizer of PotoFanm+Fi during the audience Q&A.  My ears perked.  Only an outsider would ask about or even consider anger a useful tool. And as expected, one of the first concrete solutions of an otherwise overly descriptive evening came from d’Adesky when she suggested Bev Bell’s new article about how housing is the way to address widespread rape. (unfortunately Bell’s article doesn’t address land ownership, which is blocking much transitional housing from being built)

Still, d’Adesky’s contributions to the evening’s conversation and Backer’s netroots organizing distinguish PotoFanm+Fi as a potentially powerful outsider force.  Such groups are needed if the diaspora and its allies are to leave an imprint on Haiti’s reconstruction plan.

Full disclosure: I was asked to join PotoFanm+Fi’s organizing board a few weeks ago and I did.  Right now, my role has been listening and networking; I didn’t organize Tuesday’s panel. If at any point my membership in the coalition or my growing relationship with these women compromises my integrity as a journalist (i.e. ability to report all sides, fairly), I’ll back out.  Reporting on the reconstruction means reporting on activists, too, not just government officials and foreign NGOs.

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