Sunday, February 17, 2013

[HoI Course] Looking to the Future (Haiti Today 6/6)



You can find the outline for the course here, a brief history of Haiti here, an introduction to Vodou here,  a discussion of daily life here, an overview of NGOs and foreign intervention here, and a discussion of zombies and spirits of the dead here. Please post all comments, requests, and questions in the Reddit post  rather than the blog. That way we can continue our discussion within the History of Ideas subreddit. I've also posted an album to accompany the post that you can view here

Looking to the Future
Areas of Promise and Hope for Haiti

      So far I've spent a lot of time talking about the problems past and present in Haiti. But there are some promising things too. The goal of this section is to look at some of the areas that have the potential to change Haiti's situation. In particular, I am focusing on projects that have large scale implications and not just small localized focuses. When possible, I've picked out a particular project I find interesting and promising.


      Intensive logging, crops that have leached the top soil, erosion, pollution, deforestation, and contaminated water have created a dire environmental situation in Haiti. Like I laid out in a previous post, less than 2% of Haiti is currently forested and the erosion and poor farming techniques have led to reduced productivity of the soil. For a country that is food poor, this is a serious concern. USAID and NGOs have attempted to solve these issues in a variety of ways, but with little success. For example, there have been a number of attempts to reforest Haiti through planting trees. Often groups choose fruit and avocado trees in the hope that it will kill two birds with one stone. However, what the goats don't eat the local people often cut down to turn into charcoal. Charcoal is still the most popular fuel for cooking and wood is used for heating (the mountains actually do get cold in the winter.) This doesn't stop planting efforts from being the major method utilized by non-profits and aid organizations. It isn't that efforts such as those by the Timberland company are completely ineffective. But unless something larger changes, it merely slows the inevitable and provides a continuous supply of trees for fuel and goat feed.

      Attempts to modernize agriculture have been limited by lack of access to resources, lack of credit available to farmers, land tenure issues, and corruption. However, there are a few interesting projects under way. When I was in Haiti in 2011, I met the executive director of a project called CHIBAS who was trying to cultivate edible Jatropha that he hoped would solve three specific issues. Edible Jatropha is a plant already found in Haiti and is used for marking land boundaries and in some religious ceremonies. While it is edible, as its name suggests, the fruit is not very tasty. But it does provide practical resources. The oil produced from crushing the fruit is a great biofuel - it can replace diesel in a modified engine or be used as cooking fuel. The nuts can also be used like briquettes in place of charcoal. The mash that is left over from pressing the fruit can be used as livestock feed, something that is currently very expensive in Haiti and is almost all imported. The trees grow easily in a wide variety of soils in tropical regions - including sandy and nutrient poor conditions. And, goats don't like to eat them and the wood does not make good charcoal.

      Therefore, with some educational programs they hope to shift locals' use of charcoal to Jatropha nuts and biofuel as well as encourage them to use the mash for feeding livestock. Petroleum and food currently makeup two-thirds of Haiti's annual imports but there are always shortages of each. The Jatropha program is already underway with plants being started in a field and then replanted along the mountainsides when they are big enough. Similar projects have also been underway in places like India where they hope to turn the Jatropha oil into jet fuel. It is important not to overstate the successes of projects like this and retain a healthy level of skepticism. Yet, they do look promising and give hope that the next stage of the Green Revolution will be much more successful. In the past, certain projects like those in Bali failed because they did not take local contexts, concerns, practices, and needs into account when developing their projects. Agriculture has a huge domino effect on environment, nutrition, jobs, economy, gender relations, class, etc. CHIBAS' edible Jatropha projects do a much better job listening to local concerns and trying to address the multiple levels that their work will impact. It helps that the executive director of CHIBAS was born and raised in Haiti so he is able to apply his PhD expertise in genetics, agriculture, and plant biology in a culturally and locally sensitive manner. If you are interested in learning more you can visit informational sites about the project here and here. You can also watch a video about the research going on though unfortunately it is in French.

Education & Economy

      Education can empower people to be their own agents of change and open up new opportunities. Even just gaining literacy skills allows individuals to read newspapers, make informed decisions at the polls, apply for better jobs, navigate bureaucracy, and continue their education on their own. These benefits are even higher when educating women and this is especially true in Haiti where women often manage the money, are primarily in charge of selling in the marketplace, and make most decisions regarding health, nutrition, and education of the children. In short, education is one of the few things that we can provide for other communities that creates a lifelong change.

      Yet, access to education and the ability to afford it is a major problem in Haiti. 57% of the population over the age of 13 is completely illiterate and more are functionally illiterate. 90% of schools in Haiti are private, and at an average of $109 in fees per child per year (about 40% of a poor family's yearly income) it is difficult for families to send one let alone all of their children to school. Most families do their best to send kids to a couple years of elementary school, which is reflected in the 2002-2003 enrollment statistics that show about 76% of children to to first and second grade. However, only 22% stay in school after that. In some areas high school level education is not available at all - public or private. Families that are interviewed for academic research and ones that I've spoken with personally overwhelmingly want their children to get a higher level of education and recognize its value in creating a better future for them. However, they cannot afford the fees, do not always have access to a school for their child, and may need assistance from children that requires them to attend only part-time or drop out completely. Once a child reaches an age where they could babysit younger children, help out on the farm, or assist with production and/or selling of goods the family may need their labor enough that school no longer becomes an option.

      The earthquake made this situation even more dire. At least 3,000 schools were damaged or destroyed and it will be years still before they are rebuilt. Additionally, the financial strain of sending a child to school is exacerbated when a natural disaster hits. Families lost homes and jobs and the influx of international aid workers has made prices for everything - food, shelter, water, clothing - increase dramatically. Many children and adults also experienced highly traumatizing events that may psychologically hinder them from working or attending school. And the recent cholera epidemic that has killed about 8,000 people has also created serious burdens for families. Therefore, it is important to remember that the ability and desire for attending school is not just about the child but the child's entire family and social context. Improved economic situations, child care services, cheap or free school expenses, better health services, and incentives like free lunches help children get educations just as much as access to schools.

      There are a ton of non-profits in Haiti working on the education issue. But, as I already discussed, simply building schools is not enough. They need resources to run and the other social conditions mentioned above also influence whether people can take advantage of them. Non-profits and NGOs that build structures without thinking about how the teachers, books, uniforms, school lunches, clean water, taxes, etc. will continue when the group moves on to their next project fail in their main goal. Often local politicians take them over and run them as a private school for the income with little concern over the quality of education. This is part of the reason why public schools, though they only make up about 10% of available institutions, often provide higher quality education. However, there are some promising developments on the education front and I'd like to mention a couple of them.

      First, President Martelly (elected in 2011) ran on a platform that promised free public school education to all children ages 6-12. Surprising as it may seem, he was the first president to promise this and it was a large part of why he was elected. To fund this initiative he institute two taxes: $1.50 on every international money transfer and 5 cents per minute for every international call. The taxes were to only be paid by the international participant so that it would not be a burden to locals. Remittances (money sent from families living outside the country) make up about 20% of Haiti's GDP or roughly $2.32 billion per year. His administration estimated they could raise about $8.5 million per month towards their education goals. Now the president does not actually have the legal power to levy taxes in Haiti and many Haitians at home and abroad were upset that he ignored law and instituted them without Parliament or the nation voting on them. However, enough people were willing to overlook the legality of the situation because they supported the end goal. The National Fund for Education continued to put away money while Parliament planned for how they would implement the free education scholarships. But six months after the plan was put in place, some serious concerns about the funds began to arise.

      The fund was not overseen by Parliament, but they estimated at that point it should have about $60 million. The head of the fund said their math was off and they only had $28 million. But the bank announced there was only somewhere between $5-2 million in the account. Parliament demanded an investigation as did the head of Digicel - one of the major cell phone companies and remittance transfer services that had to collect and process most of the taxes. Digicel claimed they had sent $20 million to the fund. It turned out that many of the school fees President Martelly had claimed were paid by the fund had been paid by the Clinton Foundation but many schools were still coming up short. Many teachers had not been paid their salary for months and were threatening to leave. As of writing this blog the missing money is still not accounted for and no one has a solid accounting of how much is supposed to be in there in the first place. In all, it seems like a dismal failure and one more example of President Martelly's corruption.

      So why then am I listing this initiative as a positive step? Well, in recognizing the President's failures other organizations and politicians have stepped up to try and rectify the problem. There are a number of politicians who are trying to resolve the corruption and legal problems plaguing the program. There have been numerous protests against President Martelly's mismanagement of the funds, but it is clear that the people overwhelmingly support the concept. After being promised free education for their children, the people expect it and have been very vocal about their demands for such a program going forward. It looks like even if President Martelly never fully delivers future politicians will have to at least make a show of trying to provide free schools. Other organizations like Partners in Health and the Clinton Foundation are investing heavily in local schools to help makeup for the lack of promised funds from the government. Partners in Health is also building a teaching hospital where they hope to train a wide range of medical professionals. But perhaps one of the most interesting projects actually comes from the for profit side. Digicel - the aforementioned cell phone company - is doing some very interesting things in Haiti and this is the second example that I would like to focus upon.

      Digicel is an Irish owned cell phone company that is incredibly popular and profitable in Haiti. Mobile phone access has drastically changed life in countries like Haiti. In 2005 only 5% of the country had cell coverage, but by 2009 95% of the country was covered. Some people in cities have land lines, but cell phones are much more popular and available in rural areas where land lines are not. Cell phones are relatively cheap and minutes can be purchased from vendors on the streets in whatever increments people can afford. Today, Digicel has about 4.8 million subscribers and Natcom has about 500,000 (overall population is about 9.7 million). However, these numbers are a little misleading because couples, families, and even friends often share a cell phone meaning that many more have access to one.

      Cell phones allow families and friends to stay in touch over distances in ways they couldn't before - whether that is someone going to the city for work, to the Dominican Republic to work in the sugar cane fields, or the the US. Like I discussed before, networks and relationships are incredibly important in Haiti as safety nets and for getting things done. Begging for charity is shameful in part because it indicates you don't have "people" i.e. you are not likable enough to have built up networks that would have prevented the need for begging. Cell phones may also be changing relationships within families because it allows fathers - who often leave for work - the ability to stay in touch with their children. Men often have photos of their kids on their phones and eagerly share their joy at being fathers with others through these pictures. Cell phones also allow rural communities the ability to stay in touch with urban populations and keep up to date on issues of politics, economy, and social changes that may not be covered in radio broadcasts. For example, coffee growers in the mountains used to be dependent upon middle men who would meet them at the base of the mountain and purchase the coffee to be sold in the city. Growers had to rely upon the middle men to tell them market price and were often shafted. But now they can call a cousin in Port au Prince to find out market price and this gives them the power to negotiate. More recently, the Bill and Meinda Gates Foundation  funded a program for Haitians to be able to use their cell phones like bank accounts since 90% of the population does not (and cannot) use banks. People can transfer money to other users and store money like an account. They can then take their phone to a Digicel store and get their money.  Adoption of the cell phone bank account has been slow, but the project is interesting because it allows poor Haitians access to services normally denied to them. Additionally, Digicel and other cell phone companies send out free texts to cell phones warning subscribers whenever a hurricane or other issue arises.

      All of this is to say that cell phones are great and it is good that Haitians have them now. But the educational possibilities come from the non-profit arm of Digicel. The company's billionaire chairman Denis O'Brien has made it a personal mission to improve the life of Haitians. O'Brien has also recognized that education is a major problem that the government seems unable or unwilling to tackle. So far Digicel has built 75 schools and plans to build 75 more. Some of these replace ones destroyed in the earthquake and others are aimed at reaching children in rural areas that never previously had access to education. They also have a teacher training program that plans to train 600 teachers over the next three years. The foundation also pays the salaries for the teachers and many other costs so that families only have to cover about $10 in fees for a school year - a huge savings from the national average of $109 a year. Additionally, they arrange for school lunches and vaccinations for students to be provided by other organizations.

      But more than just focusing on schools, O'Brien's foundation has recognized what I discussed earlier - increasing education of the populace requires improving the lives of the childrens' families and their ability to attend. Lack of education and its solution do not exist in a vacuum  Rather, we have to acknowledge that they are embedded in complex contexts that are all interconnected. To this end his organization has also rebuilt a historic landmark and site of trade in Port-au-Prince called the Iron Market after it was destroyed in the earthquake. Digicel installed street signs in the capital, providing prosthetic limbs for those who lost theirs in the earthquake, and hosted entrepreneurship galas for local businesses.  The foundation is investing in tourism and broke ground for the first Marriott in Haiti, moved the company's call center to Haiti to create more jobs, and their buildings allow both the mayor of Port-au-Prince and the Red Cross free offices. They are building clean water pumps, building temporary and permanent housing for people still in tents (which are now breaking down), and sponsoring the special olympics in Haiti. They also started a pilot Youth Enterprise School in Fondwa that teaches teens and younger adults business skills, financial knowledge, literacy, and skills for careers. The school also breeds animals and grows crops to generate revenue and encourage production of local food (currently most eggs, chickens, and produce is imported.) If this school does well the foundation hopes to expand to other locations. I often run into adults who lament being unable to to move beyond their current situation because they lack the business and financial skills that could help them get ahead.

      There are some Haitians who are understandably wary of O'Brien. He is a billionaire with a mission meaning he has the money and clout to bypass the corruption and politics of the system. But it also means he isn't beholden to the system. So far his efforts have been pretty amazing and it is fascinating to see how well placed and informed spending of money can have huge payoffs. It is also heartening to see the good corporations can do in a time when big business seems like a bad word in America. Yet, I do sympathize with concerns about one man making decisions that are having such a huge impact in a country that is not his own. And it is undeniable that these efforts have made Digicel incredibly popular in Haiti and is good for business. However, for now he seems to be able to balance the practices that lead to good business on the one hand and his efforts to genuinely help the island on the other. The fact that if Haiti's economy and quality of life improves it will mean more subscribers and data use for Digicel should not automatically signal a problem. Businesses and lives can thrive in tandem.


      Tourism obviously falls under the heading of economy, but I've separated it out because there are specific programs and national goals for tourism that I'd like to discuss in depth. I've encountered a lot of negative articles and comments about Haiti's investment in the tourism industry suggesting that the nation is foolish to spend its money on hotels when so many other problems plague the country. And it is true that Haiti is very poor and has huge health, housing, education, and social problems. Yet, an improved economy that increases the standard of living across a broad range of the population can create opportunities for improving all of those categories. It is vital that efforts to improve Haiti's situation do not perpetuate the cycle of poverty by merely giving away free things or only treating one aspect of the complex situation as if it exists in isolation. Haitian President Martelly announced that tourism would be a major component of his plan to rebuild the Haitian economy. At first glance, many people do not think of Haiti as an ideal tourist destination. Yet, I would like to argue that President Martelly is not crazy to suggest tourism has a huge potential for the island and that it might be a much more positive and fruitful alternative to his other plan for economic growth: sweat shops.

      Haiti used to have a thriving tourism industry that was vitally important to their economy. This shouldn't be that surprising since the Dominican Republic - the other half of the island of Hispaniola - still has a very active and profitable tourism industry. Caribbean beaches, great music, beautiful art forms, good food, and a long unique history all made Haiti an attractive place to relax and to party. Which is exactly what people like Mick Jagger, Jackie O, Jimmy Buffet, and John Barrymore went there to do. The Clintons honeymooned in Haiti. Graham Greene sat in the Hotel Oloffson and was inspired by it to write The Comedians. Luxury hotels, nightclubs, bars, and cafes lined the streets of Port-au-Prince in the 1970s1 waiting for the 150,000 tourists to arrive yearly. 25,000 jobs depended on the tourism industry. The recession that hit America in the early 1980s turned that number to 100,000 by 1981. But it was AIDS that really killed tourism in Haiti.  Americans were terrified of AIDS and did not fully understand how it spread. Anyone suspected of carrying AIDS was ostracized. In 1982, the CDC named Haiti as one of the infamous 4-H Club. Overnight Haiti became synonymous with HIV/AIDS and Haitians in America suddenly couldn't sell their homes, lost their jobs, got kicked out of their churches, and lost friends. And Americans certainly didn't want to travel to an island full of potential carriers. By the end of 1982, only 10,000 Americans had traveled to Haiti. Hotels, restaurants, clubs, resorts, and activities began folding left and right. Throughout the 1990s, the political unrest made tourism undesirable and the earthquake in 2010 destroyed what little tourist industry had recovered. But oddly enough, the earthquake also created a space for many Americans to rediscover Haiti as a place of tourism.

      Many volunteers at various non-profit and NGO efforts in Haiti get a few days off every so often for relaxation and sanity. It is common for these groups to organize day trips to beaches, Bassin-Bleu, distilleries, historic sites, or areas to buy souvenirs. Though I've been cynical about the organizations themselves, many volunteers genuinely want to help and fall in love with Haiti while there. Tourism, therefore, is growing not only from the Americans who are stationed in Haiti for a short time but returning volunteers who would like to continue supporting the economy and share their experiences with friends and family. Also, many individuals who fled Haiti during the political upheavals, repressive regimes, and poor economy return frequently to visit family and enjoy the island. In 2011, tourism made up 4.4% of Haiti's GDP with projections for it to continue rising. In July 2011, President Martelly launched "Tourism Week," which aimed to bring attention to the different sites and attractions that might interest tourists. He has also pushed for preservation of historical sites like the Citadel, marketing campaigns, and building the infrastructure that will be needed to service tourists.

      Currently, it can be difficult to be a tourist in Haiti. Roads are bad, public transit is worse, and there are few resources for planning trips. There are tour services such as Tour Haiti, which I've had great experiences with, but their website is lacking and in French. Figuring out which area of Haiti a tourist would like to visit and what to do there is easier now that Trip Advisor has Haiti reviews, but deciding where to stay is still complicated. I've stayed in some amazing hotels in Haiti, but most do not have websites, phone numbers, or reviews online making it difficult to arrange reservations from abroad. And many hotels do not have the services and staff at the levels many Americans expect. While there are some tourists who like the adventure of a destination like Haiti, to really attract large numbers they will need to address these issues. Currently, there are efforts to improve roadways, the state built an airport in the beach community of Jacmel, they opened a hospitality school in the South thanks to the Clinton Bush Foundation, and have made arrangements with international agencies to create tour packages. Port-au-Prince just hosted an international Jazz Festival with some very well known New Orleans, Germany, France, and even Cameroon. Haiti's Minister of Tourism Stephanie Villedrouin has done an impressive job building up the services and attractions in Haiti as well as reaching out to the private sector to collaborate for investments. This has sometimes meant working with major hotel chains to give them incentives to build nice hotels.  Collaborative efforts between the private tourism sector, non-profits, and the government have at times come under heavy fire from news sites and popular web communities such as Reddit. Yet, if tourism is truly going to be a cornerstone of Haiti's economic development the government has to invest in it and encourage outside investment as well.

      Tourism in Haiti has a lot of potential if there is investment and encouragement from the government and private sector. Haiti might not be able to compete with all inclusive resorts that are identical in all but name to other such resorts around the Caribbean. However, the country's history, culture, and traditions could be huge tourist draws. Haiti was the first free black republic in the world. You can tour historic landmarks from the revolutionary period with magnificent views. Because of its history and isolation, Haiti has its own art, music, and dance forms. The language, religion, and many cultural traditions can be traced back to West African forms. Though Haitians paint most of the paintings you purchase in the Caribbean and Latin America (even if it says another country at the bottom), there are items only available in Haiti such as drapos, rum, metal drum art, carved pieces, and handmade dolls. You can go from hip jazz clubs and art galleries in Petionville to a lazy day at the beach in Cayes-Jacmel swimming in the ocean and eating grilled seafood caught that day. In the North, there are Saints festivals in the summer with church services for the saints in the morning, food and craft items sold during the day, bands playing live music in the evening, Vodou ceremonies all night long, and then repeat the next day. Or you can take a donkey ride up the mountains to see the ruins of Haiti's first and only King's caste Sans Souci and his fort the Citadel and enjoy the spectacular view. If tourism is pursued not in the vein of all inclusive copycat resorts but as a place with a unique history and culture that cannot be experienced anywhere else tourism could be a major part of Haiti's economic growth.  


      While Haiti still faces many serious obstacles, there are reasons to hope that things will improve. It will take a combined effort from the government, non-profits, and for-profit investments but it is possible. Above I've discussed just a few areas where there are promising developments in the areas of education, quality of life, economy, and environment. As these projects move forward it will be important to keep an eye on them and periodically reassess. But for now I have hope that the Haitian people will be better off in the years to come. If you have any questions or would like to discuss an issue in more depth, I welcome you to ask questions on the Reddit History of Ideas post. As usual, I've also incuded a photo album of pictures I have taken that are related to the topics discussed. You can view that photo album here

Thanks to everyone who has read all or part of my History of Ideas series of essays on Haiti. If you would like to continue the conversation you can PM me on Reddit or email me at I may periodically update this blog in the future with my musings about Haiti. 

Further Reading and Sources


Education & Economy

Sloand, Elizabeth, Bette Gebrian, and Nan Marie Astone. "Fathers’ Beliefs About Parenting and Fathers’ Clubs to Promote Child Health in Rural Haiti."Qualitative Health Research 22, no. 4 (2012): 488-498.

Martelly's Education Issues


Farmer, Paul. AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame. No. 33. University of California Press, 2006.

All photographs and essays are my own works. If you would like to reproduce this post whole or in part please contact me first. Thanks!