Haiti: Crime, corruption and giving

Second guest post from Ciaran McKeown, recently returned from a week as a Haven Partnership volunteer building houses in Haiti. Here he reflects on the history of Haiti and its present dire situation – not just facing endemic poverty and the after-effects of earthquake, but widespread corruption and crime too.

Haiti is a basket-case, economically and politically. It has suffered relentlessly since the Spanish first annihilated the native Taino or Amerindians who populated Hispaniola and developed its sustainable ecology. Spain ceded the western third of the island – Haiti – to France in the 18th century, and the French proceeded mercilessly to loot its timber, sugar and cotton, using millions of importedAfrican slaves. The deforestation utterly degraded its ecology.

The Spanish and French were the principal marauders, but Ireland was not without guilt. From Belfast to Cork, quite a few became wealthy from exploiting the slave, sugar and cotton “trade”with Hispaniola. Mercifully for our reputation, people such as the genuine and largely forgotten Belfast heroine Mary Ann McCracken (sister of the 1798 Rising martyr Henry Joy) campaigned with some success against the slave trade. Eventually, the slaves rose up and Haiti became the first black independent country in the western hemisphere in 1804. It has nevertheless continued to be bedevilled by political violence.

Haiti history is too long and complex a story for this space. Suffice it to say that the country is still some distance from stability. In the past two decades, the periods in power of the controversial Jean Paul Aristide saw marked rises in literacy and health care, showing what could be done, and considerable hope rides on the fate of recently elected president Michel Martelly.

The country’s relationship with the United States is a vexed affair. On the one hand, US aid is vital to the survival of many. On the other, Washington insistence (even under Bill Clinton) that the resisting Aristide sign up to the North American Free Trade Agreement means – for instance – that highly subsidised American farmers can sell US rice more cheaply in Haiti than home producers can.

Corruption in high places is all but inevitable. As Giles Bolton makes clear in Aid And Other Dirty Business, it comes with the package: if you want an excuse to do nothing about the world’s most gross injustices, corruption provides it in spades.

And where corruption is actually inhibiting progress,– as in propping up dictatorships — that would be valid. On the other hand, where bribing some officials to get things improved is endemic in the culture, very shrewd judgment is needed to know who to bribe and to what effect – and an equally sharp conscience to ensure that such activity is not self-corrupting.

And where is there no corruption? Quite, Minister.

It would be easy to bask in armchair moralising on this issue but it is as much part of the “dirty work” of aid efforts globally as providing sewerage systems in places plagued by water-borne diseases.

Haiti in its recent history has endured the dictatorships of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvallier. Mercifully they have given way to more democratic regimes but the country’s administration is still bedevilled by corruption.

When I spoke to a senior aid logistics manager about, for instance, stock control systems, he laughed and said: “In Haiti, a ‘system’ is like water – it runs downhill until it finds its own level.”

For some reason the issue reminds me of the answer given to Steven Spielberg when he questioned a leading Holocaust survivor from Schindler’s List about the proposal to plant a tree for Oskar in Jerusalem’s Avenue of the Righteous. To the objection that Schindler was an alcoholic womanising chancer who had abused his wife, the answer came: “Oskar was Oskar. If he was Francis of Assisi, we would not have survived.”

Bolton advises would-be donors to check out the bona fides of aid organisations and the transparency of their operations. And of course, the most obvious check you can make is on their effect – “by their works shall you know them”.

In the end, you give in hope and trust and the effect is to lift yourself and lift others. The alternative is to live in a cocoon of possessive insecurity, in the gated area of your self-isolating soul.

A similar argument applies to the issue of crime. If everyone took the view that they should do nothing until Port-au-Prince ceases to be the hub of drug-trafficking from Latin America to the wider world, then not only would the poor would get poorer, but drug-trafficking would increase.

And crime, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder: if a Haitian whose children were starving had robbed me, could I call it a crime? I might be furious in the moment but would I not do something similar if my own children or grandchildren were starving? Would I not regard it in some way as an equitable redistribution of wealth?

The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett has compellingly established that more equal societies do better – even for the rich. We are a long way from being as egalitarian a society in Ireland, north and south, as we could be, and we inevitably have our own share of crime and corruption.

In Haiti it is much worse. We could help ourselves massively by helping Haiti. And I know from the generosity shown by so many in my Build It Week fundraising that the spirit is there. Having a generous sense of common purpose could give an immense boost to our own recovery as well as helping others – the more so when the effect is as tangible as it is in Haven’s work.

That is the kind of vision which can tackle crime and corruption in Ireland – and in Haiti. And it is well said that if the young have no vision and the elders do not dream dreams, the nation shall perish.