The fourth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti has come and gone. There were the usual speeches, press conferences, updates and flurries of attention. There was also, at least in some quarters, an expressed concern that it is “taking too long” to make a difference on the ground, that the problems of weak government, corruption, misdirected aid, and missing land titles are inhibiting efforts to put the country back together.
Yes, it is all taking a long time. We at AJWS are not surprised because we know the people who know Haiti well, and they predicted that the recovery process would not go smoothly. They warned those of us who were ready to listen. Haitian people understand the incredibly complex 210-year story of their country better than Americans because they live the complexity—day in and day out. They also know that too often, and in too many ways, the U.S. government has been complicit in creating problems for Haiti and in Haiti and that, in some ways, this is still the case.
All of this is to say that to understand Haiti, I believe everyone should read one of the few books that really tells the story authentically: Beverly Bell’s Fault Lines.
Bell makes it clear that there are reasons for all of the problems that have plagued Haiti, and that we need a Haitian lens to appreciate where things are. As she explains it, nothing that happens in Haiti is really a “natural” disaster; there are deeper structural issues—human-made issues like how housing was built and who lives where—that are the driving factors behind people losing their lives in an earthquake or a flood. And it is how Haiti itself and its “strong ally” the United States act afterwards that have the greatest effect on people’s lives, livelihoods and dignity.
Millions of people who survived the quake lost their families and homes. Many others are still suffering from PTSD and continue to be frustrated, disappointed, and often abused by the domestic and international programs that purport to help them. As Bell says, in Haiti, things are never what they seem, money is appropriated but not spent, goes the wrong ways and perpetuates a pattern of aid misuse.
But again and again, those who are there, those who are privileged to try to build Haiti’s civil society, and those who are hoping to make progress are confident in the vision, resilience and solidarity of Haitian people. They are working together to rebuild families, homes, properties, and capacity for their future development. They have the stories that we need to hear, the stories of grace under loss and pressure, the determination to fight for rights in a country that is rarely hospitable and at a point when its government is not up to the job and when the U.S. government has yet to send most of the money that was promised. Fault Lines tells some of these stories.
Bell lays out the aid conditions of the Haitian people as she understands them, the most important of which is “Nothing about us without us”—the determination not to mindlessly accept outside aid but, instead, to fight for programs that the people want because they know they will work. She asks us to remember how many of the problems existed before the quake, were part of the nation’s legacy of U.S. involvement. She urges that we learn how to let Haitian people become effective drivers of their own destinies and that we work to ensure that we do not increase dependency on foreign aid.
Bell believes that “everyone must benefit from a decision” and that organizing for change really should be led by people who are directly experiencing the problems we are trying to solve. Her book provides us with a portrait of history but also a prescription for how to build a just future for Haiti in which Haitian people can live with health, justice and dignity. Fault Lines is a must read.
Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service.