Haiti: the rocky road to recovery

Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake a little over two years ago, flattening homes, school buildings, and businesses; pretty much transforming the entire city of Port Au Prince into rubble. Relief efforts came and continue by non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) as nearly $5 billion in aid was promised and is being spent. But while there are ongoing success stories, half a million people are still living in camps they took refuge in right after the earthquake and they are not happy about it.

“The humanitarian response was so appreciated that few could have predicted two years later the long and deep thread of anger toward NGOs that now runs through Haitian society,” wrote Marjorie Valbrun, a Haitian-American journalist in the Sacramento Bee.

It was the topic of special television broadcasts. Cruise lines delivered supplies. Aid poured in. But was the worst natural disaster in the history of the Western Hemisphere, killing 316,000 people, and much work remains to be done.

Haiti’s crippling bureaucracy alone makes rebuilding a slow process and cause for anger by displaced Haitians but even foreign aid workers are easy targets for resentment.

“Aid workers live in nice houses, ride in air-conditioned SUVs and frequent trendy nightclubs while Haitians live in tents or shacks.” says Barbara Shelly who visited Haiti with a church group last summer and witnessed some of the hostility.

Haitian perception is that aid money is making others rich while they suffer. There is good reason to believe they may be right. Shelly’s research revealed that U.S. for-profit companies received more than 80 percent of the Haiti contracts awarded and less than 3 percent of the funds went to Haitian companies.

“Even before the quake, Haitians had a healthy suspicion of foreigners coming in “to help” or to “keep the peace,” which usually meant imposing military rule,” said Shelly.

On the success-story side, there have been some good, solid efforts to aid Haiti too recently.

Last weekend, a gala dinner organized by Cinema for Peace to benefit Haiti, tapped long-time humanitarian Sean Penn, founder of the J/P Haitian Relief Organization and newly-appointed ambassador at large of Haiti along with Indy band Arcade Fire and others to raise more money.

Arcade Fire, led by Win Butler and his Haitian wife, Régine Chassagne, have been donating a few dollars from every concert ticket to Haitian relief efforts reports the New York Times.

“We’re just a stupid indie rock band from Montreal, and just from that initiative, we’ve been able to raise millions of dollars,” Butler said. “It’s really a mistake to think of Haiti as a place where an earthquake happened to it.”

“The earthquake really revealed what was happening there,”said Butler …which pretty much nails it.

Haiti was in trouble before the earthquake. But ongoing efforts by long-time supporters of Haiti seem to be making a difference and look to be a key factor in long-term recovery.

  • The American Red Cross is helping people rebuild their homes and lives and is improving communities with health, water and sanitation projects.
  • World Vision is helping the country respond to new emergencies including hurricanes and the cholera outbreak.
  • Royal Caribbean continues to employ Haitian workers at it’s private destination of Labadee in Haiti, has built a school for children and continues to bring supplies when ships come calling.

That’s three organizations making a difference but probably not the answer for those who choose to give. At that gala dinner, Arcade Fire’s Butler called on the crowd to collaborate in offering help.

“Everyone just talk to each other,” he said, “and try to magnify each others’ efforts.”

That might very well be a key to Haiti’s long-term recovery. It sure can’t hurt.

Flickr photo by newbeatphoto

Sean Penn on Hugo Chavez: “He is clearly not a dictator by any international standard”

Say the name “Hugo Chavez” and a creepy tingle crawls up my back and, if I could, I would scream at the top of my lungs in frustration and anger. Hugo Chavez, Venezuela‘s long-standing President, is what many Americans believe to be an evil, socialist dictator. While I certainly don’t agree with ultra-Conservatives like Pat Roberts that someone should kill the guy, I do believe Chavez needs to be stopped in seeking re-election until 2021 and beyond.

On the other side of the spectrum is Sean Penn’s humane approach to and interview with Chavez. In an interview that was recently posted on The Nation, Penn describes his time with Chavez since their first meeting in 2006.

I am a huge fan of Sean Penn as an actor, but his humanitarian resumé is rather brief. Penn seems to paint an awfully positive picture of the Venezuelan President in some ways because he is trying to disapprove of the Conservatives’ (on Fox News, for instance) extreme dislike of Chavez.

While my own opinion of Chavez is rather biased because of my time in Colombia and approval of Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s President, whom Chavez once called “Bush’s poodle,” I still cannot see how anyone — particularly an outspoken actor turned interviewer — can be even the slightest bit approving of a man who supports terrorists and does not honor the democratic process. Chavez sought an end to presidential term limits last year, but his referendum was narrowly yet democratically rejected. Now he seeks the same thing — except this time, he has numbers on his side. In addition to this, he is slowly winning approval from such powerful nations as Russia and China. His wielding of power is frightening to say the least.

Chris McCandless’ Bus an unlikely tourist attraction

Chris McCandless, the famous vagabond and subject of Sean Penn’s new film, Into the Wild, is perhaps best known for living out of an abandoned bus in the Alaskan Wilderness in the early 90s. He hiked to the middle of nowhere of his own accord, despite warnings from concerned locals, and lived off the land for a number of months. On September 6, 1992, two hikers found the bus, and on the outside, a note that read:

SOS. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?

Unfortunately they were too late. McCandless had been dead for two weeks.

The bus was strategically placed on the Stampede Trail to provide refuge for hunters better equipped for the Alaskan wilderness than McCandless. But since the publication of the book the movie was based on, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, wayward travellers, mostly young men, have been romanticizing McCandless’ story and re-enacting his journey. And now, amidst worries that even more fans will flock to the site, located about 25 miles from the town of Healy, locals are considering moving it.

Moving it is a problem of it’s own, since they can’t just drive it out of there. And it’s a shame to take away a refuge for legitimate hunters who are equipped for the wilderness, just because some lost souls have a morbid curiosity to see the deathbed of their ill-placed hero. Thoughts?

Citizen Penn

about a week behind on my New Yorker reading and so was pleasantly surprised this week to find last week’s issue had a
rather informative and interesting profile by John Lahr on Sean Penn. Now, I’m no celebrity worshipper. I honestly,
deeply believe that our fascination with celebrity is both absurd and harmful. Absurd because we are placing such lofty
value in people’s whose compensation (in the form of money and status) is completely incommensurate with their
societal contribution. Harmful in the respect that we are largely distracted from more meaningful aspects of the human
experience by spending so much time and caloric output on worrying what Brad and Angelina are up to.

with that as a rather ridiculous, if contradictory, preface for this post, let me say that I did find the article on Sean Penn rather interesting. Penn, you might
remember has been traveling the world…or at least certain dangerous parts of it…to show us the other
of these places, the happy faces of the Axis of Evil, and it certianly is nice for him to have himself
photographed walking among the people. He penned, if you’ll pardon the pun, a series of articles, some 12,000
words total, for the San Francisco Chronicle, some of which we discussed here.
Now, despite my cynicism, there is value here, because Penn holds himself out as a kind of citizen of the world, a
purveyor of higher truths, and he is one of a few celebrities who really tries of leverage his status to heighten
public awareness of issues that lie outside of Hollywood. Now whether that is a good or bad thing is another issue.
Whether we should in any way trust that Penn possesses the smarts or experience to be the one who alerts us to the
world’s ills is a fine question to ponder. So you just go ahead and do so. But I think you will find the article here
pretty fascinating, as Penn comes across as a rather complex character. I can’t positively say I like him, but he
intrigues me.