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Popular anthropology for everyone.

Haiti After the Earthquake

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If you want to understand why Haiti is struggling so much to recover from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit them on the 12thJanuary, 2010, then this is a good place to start.

Paul Farmer is one of the most influential people writing about Haiti. In his roles as physician, anthropologist, and Special Envoy for the United Nations, he has engaged for decades with the Haitian people and world leaders to find solutions to the small Caribbean nation's multitude of problems.

This book asks why the earthquake was so catastrophic and describes the efforts of Haitians and the international community to "build back better." Farmer argues that "A sound account of the quake must go deep into Haiti's history to illuminate what caused the chronic disabilities, engendered over five centuries by transnational social and economic forces with deep roots in the colonial enterprise."

Haiti After the Earthquake has an unusual format. The first eight chapters are written by Farmer himself, describing his experiences of Haiti in the first year after the earthquake and explaining the background to his work there.

The second part of the book consists of short contributions by twelve writers, doctors, and researchers who work in, or with, Haiti. Most of these accounts "bear witness" to the first month or two after the earthquake. Their authors include the Haitian fiction writer Edwidge Danticat, Farmer's wife Didi Bertrand Farmer, and anthropologist Timothy T. Schwartz, to name but a few.

A sound account of the quake must go deep into Haiti's history to illuminate what caused the chronic disabilities, engendered over five centuries by transnational social and economic forces with deep roots in the colonial enterprise Paul Farmer

By far and away, most of the book is Farmer's. It repeats many of the points he has been trying to make about Haiti for years: the historical roots of Haiti's suffering, especially at the hands of France (especially the reparations that Haiti paid France for the freeing of their slaves) and the United States (whose aid and trade policies have caused considerable economic damage, acknowledged publicly by Bill Clinton), the need to shift development focus from the capital to the provinces, and the catastrophic consequences of diverting aid from the Haitian public sector in favour of NGOs.

Farmer's frustration that it has taken an earthquake to impel serious efforts to coordinate development in Haiti comes through loud and clear.

The chapter by Haitian journalist Michèle Montas-Dominique, entitled Sim Pa Rele (If I Don't Shout), is particularly valuable because she reports on the findings of the "Voices of the Voiceless" project in which a team of researchers conducted 156 focus groups with a total of 1750 Haitians in March 2010.

In contrast to popular perceptions that people living in post-earthquake camps are doing nothing to change their situation and are blasé about living on handouts, the project found that people are very unhappy with life in the camps, have been very active trying to rebuild, and have a great many ideas for building their country "back better."

Montas-Dominique recalls how many people reported greater levels of solidarity among the Haitian people post-earthquake, and a strong sense that "Haiti will never die"; that it has faced great challenges before and is unbreakable.

What I find most disturbing about the context this book presents is that Farmer was extraordinarily successful in capturing the attention of powerful people long before the earthquake ever happened, yet little changed in Haiti despite all of this attention.

However, the book also left me with a sense of hope. Farmer shows how, under the right conditions, no country is a hopeless case. To demonstrate what Haiti could become, he gives best-case and worse-case scenarios for major development indicators such as education, health, housing, and employment.

Even more promisingly, the book gives the impression that Haitians themselves still believe that an improved Haiti is possible, and are willing to participate in their country's development – so long as they are actually permitted to do so.


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