Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Education as an Idol

Haitians worship education. More specifically, the kind that involves classes, books, note taking, preferably with testing and diplomas of course. Imagine the importance of owning a house to the average American family and one may begin to understand the importance of education here.

Sadly, we commit the same sins: we buy more of it than we need; we pay more for it than it is worth; and often, it has a poor rate of return.

For example, a young man, between 23 and 30, had a job as accounting clerk. But then he was told of a chance to enroll in a Bible school program for free. The allure of yet another diploma or certificate was too strong to resist. He quit his job and enrolled in the program. Shortly afterwards, he had to leave the program, but he had already given up his job and has been without one ever since.

Stories like these are not unique or even rare: we Haitians believe in education more than anything else, except real property maybe.  Here, a country with a 60-70% unemployment rate, people walk away from jobs in the name of education. Here, families go without food, using their money instead to pay tuition and uniforms and books, in the name of education. Here, a father leaves his wife and their small children--with her encouragement and blessing--to go abroad for years, in the name of education. Here, parents turn their 15-year-old daughter over to 40-year-old men, in the name of education. (The 40-year old pays for the daughter’s schooling, and she in turns pays with her body--and her life.)

This is insanity. And the problem is compounded each time a national politician or an international figure mindlessly repeats simplistic slogans: “education is the foundation of society”; “education is the foundation of life.”  Maybe. But what if education meant more than school and diplomas? What if honest work really counted? What if actual skills or real experiences mattered more? What if nuclear families were foundational? What about honest common sense?

Such considerations are ignored.  In matters of education, sacrifices are not just accepted: they are promoted.

Forget voodoo: in Haiti, education is our god, our idol, our drug. And the results are just as destructive. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Gore and Governance

The news these last couple of weeks have been dominated by the affaire Belizaire: the police met the first-term deputy Arnel Belizaire (the equivalent of a US congressman) at the Port-au-Prince airport upon his return from a trip, and led him to prison. The deputy was released the next day, even though the prosecution explained that he was wanted for having escaped from prison while serving an 18-month sentence circa 2003-2005.

His peers in both houses of the Parliament (deputies and senators), the press, well-known attorneys, average Haitians, have all been outraged at the arrest because the Haitian constitution forbids the arrest of active members of Parliament. The explosion of their anger has been deafening.

Respectable citizens, Christians, professors, attorneys, business owners, PhDs, have all had a same reaction: the violation of legislative immunity by the Executive branch must be stopped. One senator, in a rhetorical volée, proudly declared that a legislator, even if he was accused of killing 100 people, cannot be arrested unless his colleagues officially strip his immunity.

Worse still, the reaction has tended to absolve Deputy Belizaire: to the extent that he was guilty of crimes, he did nothing wrong by running for office, because it was up to the justice system to stop him. The system allowed him to run and win, and therefore he does not need to answer for past alleged crimes.

So in all of this noise, very few voices have asked the following questions: what did the deputy do? What crimes is he accused of? Did he in fact commit them or any other?

According to police records, he has been arrested multiple times for carrying unregistered firearms, driving stolen cars, murder, and kidnapping. Murder and kidnapping.

One can only imagine a US congressman who is discovered to have a long "rap sheet" of serious crimes. The pressure would be on him, on his party, on his allies. But in Haiti, much less so.

This reaction, I think, has at least two explanations.

First, people offered so much support to the deputy because he was arrested after a very ugly altercation with the president, who apparently behaved in a way horrifying to civilized people. There is every reason to believe that the president personally ordered that the deputy be arrested. Given the history of dictatorships in this country, such an order would indeed raise concerns.

But the second cause is less noble: we as a society have grown accustomed to having doers of bad acts, authors of serious crimes, serve in high places. Even from my much removed perspective, I have heard of a few Parliamentarians who have likely committed murder, rape, drug trafficking. Would kidnappings be out of range? How about domestic violence?

Illegalities are not the only concern. There is also the matter of our morality and character. A former presidential candidate was reputed to have fathered half dozen children or more, with as many women, out of wedlock. During the ceaseless radio conversations about him, scant mention was made of his personal life: as if the immorality of if did not matter.

Also, we have just elected a president who continually flaunts his crudeness and rudeness, displaying them as badges of honor in front of a suffering and non-discriminating mass.

Politicians are not the only loose actors. Pastors too have been accused of serious wrong doing, including fraud, with silence from their peers. And at least one Catholic leader has encouraged the president to govern the country as his former Sweet Mickey self--a character whose speech was laced with obscenities and who apparently pranced on stage wearing only pink underwear.

God, forgive us: in many ways, the morals of Sweet Mickey reflect what many of us would never do, but somehow find acceptable in others. Some twisted perversion of "to each his own" or "among friends all is permissible."

So I write against vulgar presidents and criminals in parliament, against religious leaders who lie and peers who stay quiet: please stop. Let’s dispense with the gore so this country can experience true governance. Haitians must be encouraged to dream, to have visions, to work, in respect of laws, decency, dignity and civility. You’re in the way.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Judging a very likable person

Jean-Max Bellerive is the former prime minister of Haiti. In addition to that position, he was also the head of the all-powerful Ministry of Planification and the co-director of the Interim Commission, tasked with the responsibility of reconstructing Haiti.

To hear Mr. Bellerive, President Preval and he did not only do their best in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, but they did the very best that could be done under the circumstances: things were understandbly chaotic and there were very few resources at their disposal. Moreover, he reminds everyone, many of the top government officials were themselves affected, from the loss of homes and ministries to the loss of colleagues and children.

It is hard to reject such eloquent arguments, especially from a clearly eloquent man, one who, by all accounts, has led a moral and orderly life beside.

Except, his argument is, and this is hard to say because he is likable, hollow. One look around Port-au-Prince, 20 months after the earthquake, evidences what media stories have described in painful details: Haiti has been badly served by those whose job it was to respond to the disaster.

That lack of results debunks Mr. Bellerive's words.

To accept them, one would have to believe that the millions spent, the 1000s of meetings, the high "expertise" levels, and the countless compromises and agreements reached, all of that could do not lead to improved results.

Mr. Bellerive's basic explanation is the following: "I know you could not tell, but trust me: we were good leaders."

By some standards, he may be right: how well he can speak or knows the "dossiers"; how well he got along with Haitian politicians and international players alike; how personally upstanding he is.

But Haiti needed a visionary, reassuring leader who would have painted for us a picture of a country reborn from the "decombres," and would have marshalled good will and resources, first at the local and national levels, to make it a reality.

No one in the government did that. And as it was your government three times over, Mr. Bellerive, I respectfully dissent.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Home Schooling, Haitian Style

School has finally started here in Port-au-Prince. Parents, radio personalities, policitians, members of the international community, all are pleased that almost all children (at least around the capital) are in school. 

This joy is a bit misguided:  two-and-a-half year-olds should not be taking tap-taps at 6:30  every morning to go to school. They cannot even walk.

I would love to see a push by the government to encourage parents to keep their children at home until age five, while "home schooling" them: introduction to colors, numbers, letters, shapes, Bible verses, the Dessalinienne.  With some simple materials (educational videos, music tapes, large crayons & coloring books, puzzles, etc.), even the non-reading parent can "teach" her child at home for the early years.

Clearly, two parents working full-time outside the home may well have to send their child to daycare, but that situation is rare here: most people simply do not have jobs requiring the traditional 9-to-5 day, so at least one parent can dedicate time to a child's early education.

For the parent who really cannot or simply will not be the "teacher," private tutors provide a clear answer.

These tutors can be chosen among the 1000s of young Haitian men and women who, having completed their education, cannot find jobs. Imagine thousands of them, early in the morning, getting into tap-taps, going to "home school" very young children at home.

Makes more sense, no?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Small Expectations

An INGO employee,  speaking in a meeting in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, explained that his work was “to bring a measure of humanity, always insufficient, into situations that should not exist.”  

This view, oh so timid, may well be responsible for the lack of results of those large entities, except as providers of basic emergency materials in acute situations.

The problem is that INGOers who adopt this philosophy feel as if they have done ‘the Lord’s work’ by doing very little indeed. All that is required is “measure of humanity” – a cup of water or a bag of rice. Nothing more efficient or productive or intelligent.  

But a more complete analysis is necessary: not what was done, but what should have been done, given the stated objective, the resources, the expertise, the time, the conditions – in a word, what was possible.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Haitian Bravery

I do not mean to sing the praises of Haitian politicians during this our moment of amateur politics, but I ask you to consider how brave one must be to run for political office in Haiti: he is liable to literally lose his skin because of it. Consider that, unlike many other developing countries, Haiti is located close to the world’s super power, so almost all Haitian politicians have been there, studied there, married there. They could, with great ease, have done like the other three million in the diaspora and found that it was indeed nice to live in a country where they can take their children to well equipped trauma centers in case of an accident. Or where they can drink tap water with no serious risk of diarrhea. Or simply go see a movie.

They didn’t. 

Presumably, they said to themselves:  I was born in Haiti. I like it there. I have to go back and help. I will become involved publicly, even at the risk of loss of reputation, of embarrassment, or worse. But I am willing. Let’s roll.

Bravo, folks. Thank you.

P.S.: Now, would you please do right by the country?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Vladimir Nabokov once said that the purpose of storytelling was “to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.”

I wonder what kind of impact that kind of storytelling would have on Haiti's current situation. Even more anathema, what would happen if key Haitian players, like THOSE deputies and senators, were treated with "fragrant tenderness"?

All Haitian politicians and public employees, including ministers and their directors and police officers, are assumed to be corrupt, on some extraordinary scale.

Instead, I suggest we assume that they are human beings: capable of greatness or at least of great goodness, but also more likely to follow the path of least resistance--quite understandable if not predictable: make it easier for them to "behave" than not, and they will.

Monday, August 22, 2011


Welcome to "Ayiti Tout Bon"! 

In Creole, "tout bon" means 'really.' A more literal meaning is 'all good': Haiti really. Haiti all good.

Both meanings are appropriate here, because this blog means to both demystify the public's perception of Haiti, and show some of what is fabulous about this country. This space is open to all thinkers of good faith who wish to dialogue about Haiti's solutions.

The idea is to publish one post every week, but you are welcome to react any time and as much as you like.

Let us reason together. And act reasonably.