To Defend or Develop? on the Politics of Engagement among Local Organizations in Bel Air, Haiti, before and after the Quake

By Kivland, Chelsey | Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

To Defend or Develop? on the Politics of Engagement among Local Organizations in Bel Air, Haiti, before and after the Quake


Kivland, Chelsey, Journal of Haitian Studies


When I am in Haiti, I often find myself confusing people with my incessant gratitude.1 1 insert my manners, honed by a white, middle -class upbringing in the Midwest, into various situations, expressing thanks when someone walks me to the tap tap, relieves me of a heavy bag, or hands me the soda I just purchased. More often than not, my expression of gratitude sounds like an apology. I often excuse myself for needing others' help, even if it's just a scoot up in the tap tap, and then retreat into a chain of conciliatory thank-yous. After many raised eyebrows, I've come to realize that I say mesi way more than is appropriate or necessary. Yet I've struggled to break the habit. My longtime friend and research assistant, Ly sa Aide, knows this well. Having corrected me for years now, she reached her limit on my last trip to Haiti. Only half joking, she asked me: "Don't Man help each other? In life, one helps the other. Why every time someone helps you, you have to say thank you? And why are you sorry when you need help? Ede pa deranjel"2 Asking someone to help you, she was saying, is not the same as burdening someone.

This contrast struck me, for it captures something of the gap between how Americans and Haitians approach our shared world. It touches on the difference between the way I view myself as leading a self-reliant and independent life in the United States, and the way my Haitian friend thinks of herself as deeply enmeshed in a web of interdependent collectives in Haiti and beyond. As I thought about it, I began to see my thank-yous and excuse-mes as more than a translation problem. These words are gestures that reflect American culture's deep valorization of autonomy and individualism. Conversely, the relative paucity of these words in Haitians' everyday life actually affirms the wealth of everyday acts of assistance. Ironically, it is the unacknowledged circulation of these acts that attests to Haitians' profound acknowledgement of the many dependencies that make their lives possible. After all, if it's part of ordinary life, then helping is not a burden and need not be excused. As Lysa put it, "E de pa deranje." (Helping does not disturb.)

In the aftermath of the earthquake, this pithy phrase has become something of a metaphor through which I have tried to understand the different motivations that structure grassroots activism in Haiti and international aid. The former, usually organized around a localized "family" (fanmi) of kin, friends, and neighbors, is rooted in an understanding of interdependence and inescapable reciprocity. Conversely, international aid, whether pursued at the level of the state or among concerned citizens, often begins with an understanding of inequality and social distance, and the need for charity.

In Bel Air, the downtown, impoverished neighborhood of the capital where I conduct research on expressive political culture, "organized people" (moun oganize) often distinguish their work from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with a shift of vocabulary.3 They say that whereas these foreign organizations aim to "develop" (devlope) Bel Air by bringing aid to strangers, they are engaged in "defending" the zone and the interests of their neighbors by pooling their own resources as well as securing outside support. Though the notion of defense may express militancy, it also conveys the act of collective advocacy, and is articulated through several expressions such as: "taking up one's defense" (pran defans), "defending" idefann)^ "protecting" (pwoteje)^ "supporting" [ankadre\ and "reclaiming rights" or "redressing wrongs" (revandike). With this vocabulary, organized people not only configure their social engagement as inextricably tied to the many actual dependencies they bear as coeval residents of the neighborhood. They also invoke a world of competing interests in which their agendas are one of many. Hence, the idea of defense, as opposed to development, also valorizes local leadership. …

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