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Popular anthropology for everyone.

Missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits

Foreigners in Haiti

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In February 2011 I was sitting in Pwoje Espwa, a house for vulnerable children in Les Cayes, Haiti, with my good friend Matt Levasseur. We were talking with the director, an ex-military Catholic priest called Father Marc, about the post-earthquake influx of foreigners into Haiti. With a cigarette in one hand and a glass of rum in the other, he told us that in his opinion, foreigners in Haiti can be classified into three types: missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits. Whether you come to Haiti with good or bad intentions, the end result is often the same: trouble.

Father Marc is't the first person to note that the developing world attracts certain kinds of personalities. The anthropologist Roderick Stirrat published an article in 2008 in which he discusses stereotypes of development workers globally, and points out that the categories of "mercenaries, missionaries, and misfits" have their roots in the days of empire, during which Europeans believed it was their duty to "civilize" the rest of the world.

In Stirrat's characterization, mercenaries are expat employees of multilateral development banks and consultants who help the poor for profit. Missionaries are NGO workers who justify their labours on the basis of humanitarian convictions, though these may be at odds with local beliefs. Misfits are people who, for some reason or another, cannot live in their home country. At first glance, these three categories seem very different. Stirrat warns us to not be fooled.

These stereotypes are, as Stirrat shows, over-generalizations. However, they are observable in Haiti, and not just among development workers. Between the Duvalier dictatorships, civil strife, poverty, and the 2010 earthquake, Haiti attracts people with a sense of adventure. This is not always a good thing.

Mercenaries are largely development workers and foreign business people who came to Haiti (often years ago) to make money. They reside in large houses surrounded by barbed wire-topped walls, fed by servants and driven around by chauffeurs. They've lived through waves of violence and catastrophe, and many worked tirelessly to save lives in the aftermath of the earthquake. They come to resent Haiti, the hand that feeds them, and they also resent the foreigners who come here thinking that they can "save Haiti" with just a few months of local experience.

The misfit category is generally populated by drug dealers and brothel-owners, but it also includes disaster tourists, that rare but detestable breed who make a living out of visiting disaster zones.

One case I learned about was of a European couple who would raise money back home to do their charity work. Their mission in Haiti was to help rebuild houses. Apparently this couple spent a total of two hours in their whole trip actually working; the rest of the time, they were sightseeing and eating in upper-class restaurants. Of course, they posed with building materials for photographs, posting these on their website to show their donors how valuable their contribution had been. After all, they were there to help Haiti. And other people paid for their trip.

Finally, there are the missionaries, of which there are many since the earthquake. Armed with unwavering ideologies that are often at odds with those of the people are trying to help, missionaries embark upon new development projects with the best of intentions. These ideologues also count as what Father Marc terms FWIPs: "fucking well-intentioned people." Far from helping Haitians, their good intentions can pave the way to new kinds of hell.

Part of the problem is that they have an unwavering conviction that their way of doing things is the right way. Our flight into Port-au-Prince in January actually included a group of Americans bearing t-shirts announcing, "God sent us to save Haiti." Whether such conviction is grounded in religion or any other ideology, it dangerously blinds the believer to being dismissive of local abilities and customs. As Stirrat points out, religious and non-religious missionaries alike impose their beliefs upon the local population in return for aid.

I met one guy who shame-facedly confessed to me that he had been involved in one of these disastrous projects and had since entirely changed his approach. While he didn't go into detail, these disasters are well-documented by the likes of journalist Janet Reitman and anthropologist Timothy Schwartz (author of Travesty in Haiti). One of many examples from Schwartz's book details how one NGO constructed pit toilets, which subsequently filled up with water and led to a malaria epidemic.

Sometimes, the errors of missionaries seem small. On my plane into Port-au-Prince, I sat next to a young woman who was flying down to deliver French language books to an orphanage. Nothing wrong with that, I supposed, except that many of the orphanages are corrupt. And I wondered why she was bringing the books with her, rather than buying them in Haiti and supporting the local economy. Granted, she probably won't do much damage by herself. But these things add up.

On the Dominican-Haitian border, I met an American man who builds small, concrete houses for local poor people who are living in tiny, thatched houses that have little hope of surviving a hurricane. In some ways, he is one of the more competent people I have met on the island. He has been working in the island for fourteen years, speaks enough Spanish and Kreyol to get by, and works with locals who understand what they are doing. He gets projects finished quickly and moves on to the next thing.

Yet this missionary is largely un-reflective about what he is trying to do: he says that God guides him, and that he is nothing more than a referee. His houses are given not to the most needy, but to the people who contribute the most to the churches with which he is affiliated. This is not saving Haiti, it is using resources to deliberately engineer the local culture in the image of the foreigner's beliefs.

This guy on the border also complained to us that the United States is being ruined by welfare, then got into his truck to drive across the border to Haiti to build another free house and deliver free health care. Irony aside, in a sense, he is right–but about the wrong place. It is not the United States that suffers from welfare dependency, but Haiti. Not because Haitians are lazy or because welfare is a bad idea, but because large, international NGOs and multilateral development banks control so much of the wealth that enters the country. They pay high wages and drain the government of good workers; they pay exorbitant prices and cause inflation. They donate foreign products, such as rice and peanut butter, despite the fact that Haiti produces them. These gestures of goodwill destroy domestic production and make Haiti dependent upon imports.

In his book Haiti After the Earthquake, Paul Farmer suggests that far more money should be directed to the Haitian government so that it can look after its own people. Corruption may be endemic, but without a budget, the government will never be able to turn itself around. NGOs cannot save Haiti, because they do not have the necessary long-term commitment or operational understanding. NGOs should not save Haiti, because they have their individual agendas that are not appropriate to the governance of an entire country.

Individuals, whether they are missionaries, mercenaries, or misfits, may well be able to do some good in Haiti, but they should be sure to begin their projects with far less optimism, a lot more risk assessment, and respect for Haitians and their state. Their projects need to fit in with, and build upon, what is already being done. This way they have a chance to avoid reinventing the wheel. More importantly, by approaching Haiti with an historical consciousness, they might avoid making things worse.

These ideologues also count as what Father Marc terms FWIPs: "fucking well-intentioned people." Far from helping Haitians, these good intentions can pave the way to new kinds of hell.

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Save Haiti t-shirt: a nice idea, except that the road to development hell is often paved with good intentions.
Save Haiti t-shirt: a nice idea, except that the road to development hell is often paved with good intentions.