Haiti Crisis is Actually Getting Better, Not Worse

I grew up in a Catholic household in the Bahamas, and we knew our bible: The Book of Revelation’s themes were depicted in those illustrated Christian books (where all the people were Caucasian), and the damnation poured from the mouth of a heaving, fire breathing, street preacher- woman who dressed in black on the hottest days under the Caribbean sun.

The Book of Haiti, the gospel about this Caribbean nation according to the New York Times, is like The Book of Revelation - doom and gloom. The reporters at the New York Times find it more compelling to frame Haitians as desperately poor, victims of their government, and primitives incapable of achieving a better life. But as Haiti rebuilds and continues to develop, the U.S. media must stop recycling incomplete images of Haiti as a failed state to meet the expectations of its readers.

Often New York Times stories go unchallenged. Yet the Huffington Post’s Haiti’s Battle to Shake off a Poor Reputation, written in response to the New York Times' controversial  Earthquake Relief Where Haiti Wasn’t Broken, addresses the negative way in which the mainstream media (including the New York Times) frames Haiti and Haitians to its readership. Readers must challenge media outlets to produce meaningful journalism about Haiti.

Earthquake Relief Where Haiti Wasn’t Broken introduces New York Times readers to The Caracol Industrial Park, a Haitian development project with levels of transparency and community involvement mandated for economic development projects in most U.S. cities. The construction of the industrial park is led by the UTE, a Haitian entity under the Ministry of Finance staffed and run by Haitians.  

The anchor tenant, Sae-A Trading, is a South Korean clothing manufacturer and major supplier to American retailers like Walmart and The Gap. The Caracol Park and associated investments were approved by the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) in December 2010 by a Board comprised of senior members from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Haitian government, union and civil society leaders, and partners from the international community. The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and the United States pooled resources and worked in multidisciplinary teams with the Haitian government, environmental experts, energy engineers, civil engineers, urban planners, financial advisers, labor compliance experts, economists, and industry experts. In reality, this was a deliberate, thoughtful project designed by Haitians to change their future, not an ill-advised altruistic NGO coming in to fix things.  

Nonetheless, the New York Times article describes the project as one that has displaced Haitian farmers, has the potential to produce poor public housing akin to the slums of Cité Soleil, an industrial polluter, and will harken Haitian employees back to the times of slavery. Even the salary to be earned is framed as having “no roots” when compared to the “banana tree.”

These are strong words that perpetuate the image of Haitians as incapable, corrupt, disorganized victims to a voracious government that need outside protection and oversight. In contrast, the author of Haiti’s Battle to Shake off a Poor Reputation frames Haiti as a developing nation trying to find a foothold to start climbing the ladder of development. This positive portrayal of the country describes a path taken by many other developing countries, and follows a strategy that led many South Asian countries from extreme poverty to middle income status.

As a former Bahamian journalist, I understand the concepts behind negative framing of Third World countries in the media. The Haitian stereotypes are blatant and damaging and serve to foster beliefs that nothing in Haiti has changed for the better, and will only get worse. This perception coupled with the tune, “despite our money, Haiti can’t get their act together,” infuriates me. As a social realist filmmaker my mission is to reframe the narrative of the Caribbean and its people – one story at a time. There are stories of success emerging in Haiti that this simplistic view fails to capture.

The New York Times points out that American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL CIO) has urged American and international officials to reconsider investing with Sae-A, citing labor practice violations in Guatemala. Yet the Huffington Post writes that  Haiti has worked with the U.S. Government, as well as the International Labor Organization (ILO) to put in place one of the most stringent labor compliance regimes found anywhere in the world. 

The New York Times writes the project didn’t get a stamp of approval from the U.S. Treasury Department, which represents the United States on the IADB board, because an environmental impact study was not done properly or far enough in advance. Alternately, the Huffington Post points out that the development of the Caracol Park region and its associated investments can generate the resources needed to rehabilitate and sustainably preserve the area’s natural habitat.

The New York Times adds that critics also say the U.S. State Department components of this project — a heavy-fuel-oil power plant, a dense housing complex and a port proposed for a pristine bay — betray the post-earthquake idealism about “building back better,” and that the spending of reconstruction funds in Caracol is misplaced. An important aspect that the New York Times missed is explored by the Huffington Post, mentioning the challenges that farmers face in Northern Haiti, one of the poorest regions in the country and the full scope of the displaced farmers compensation.   According to the the Huffington Post the 50 hectares currently generates approximately $75,000 in agricultural revenues and stands to pay $45M in local worker wages from Sae-A alone within five years. This means approximately 600 times more income for the local community.

The time has come for the New York Times to frame Haiti as a developing nation filled with citizens with their own dreams and aspirations, not ill-fated people stuck in mud. The first major project investment in Haiti is an opportunity for compelling and insightful reporting about progress, with follow up and investigative grit. Save the doom and gloom for the fire breathers on the street corners.