With Haiti's Recovery, Opportunities Abound to Use Communication for Social Change
Message from Denise Gray-Felder
It hardly seems appropriate to start this letter with “Happy New Year” given the tragedy in Haiti that is occupying many of our waking hours and most of our thoughts. Yet I do not want to miss the opportunity to wish our readers, friends, collaborators, network members, donors and others who give to us of their time, talent and intelligence all good wishes as we begin a new decade.
So let me just write that I wish each of you a year 2010 that is full of the promise you deserve.
I am struck at the beginning of each new year by how much hope many of us put on our lives and circumstances changing due to the simple fact that one day on a calendar changes. I wonder if this is a phenomenon more common in developed communities than in developing ones. Is the act of making New Year’s resolutions, vowing to convert our lives, an act of shallowness or depth? It probably does not matter much in the greater scheme of world affairs if I lose those extra inches or pounds in the next 12 months, unless of course, I am dangerously overweight.
Yet, many of us living in homes where the electricity always works and the water always runs clean spend an inordinate amount of time discussing—and fretting about—such matters. Meanwhile, in countries not so far away, parents fret about how to feed their children or how to find safe drinking water.
At the start of this year—before the earthquake in Haiti—I made a silent vow, telling no one, but storing it away in my “secret place,” to help improve someone else’s life in the year 2010. Someone who is not a blood relative or a close friend or a colleague. Someone who is a stranger now but who will become a friend.
Little did I know when making that promise that in slightly more than one week I would be given a dramatic opportunity to make my vow real.
For an earthquake hit Haiti, and literally and figuratively the walls of that country came tumbling down. Reporters who had scampered on the beaches in nearby Dominican Republic—never giving a second thought to the lives on the other side of the island of Hispaniola—became overnight experts on the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. (Imagine how it must feel to hear your birthplace and your beloved nation referred to continually in deficit terms.)
My New Year’s promise woke me up a few nights after the first aftershock in Haiti, mocking me for my lack of action. What would I do, as a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend if my loved ones were unaccounted for or worse?
I wonder if on January 12 some Haitian mother sent her teenager off to school (as I did) feeling just a fleeting moment of concern; not quite sure why she was feeling peculiar. I wonder whether “mother’s instinct” caused a Mom in Port-au-Prince to telephone or text her child just before the quake hit, just wanting to hear his or her voice or know he or she was safe?
Anyone older than 25 years has witnessed far too many global tragedies in the past two decades. Yet this disaster in Haiti has me ever more convinced of the fragility of our human existence. And of the fact that none of us—not a single one—can continue to just sit down, witness poverty, despair and hopelessness next door or around the world, and not act.
There will be theoretical and academic arguments for years to come about why a 7.0 quake caused so much destruction in Haiti. There will be endless debates about “what Haiti really needs and why.” Of course this country did not have the resources to adequately strengthen its physical and human infrastructure. Of course people living in inadequate housing to start with were at the greatest risk of harm. And of course children who have lost parents and caregivers to hunger, AIDS and TB—to name a few of the most pressing ailments—least deserve to now be homeless.
For me, as one who does not know Haiti but who does know much of the rest of the Caribbean, Haiti is an anomaly. It is a country rich in outside aid and development help from North America and Europe. Yet it is still poor in its ability to coordinate all those outsiders telling Haitians what to do and how to do it. It is too simplistic, I believe, to suggest that years of corruption and misdirected spending have brought Haiti to its knees. And it ignores the culpability of Haiti’s donor “friends” who have pumped money and programs into the country while robbing them of their self-rule and minimising the Haitian agricultural economy.
We as global citizens with caring hearts and discretionary money in our checking accounts must realise that development is not just about money. Effective development requires the ability to listen more often than to talk, to respond to local needs as the locals determine them, to lift up indigenous cultures, and to leave paternalistic and “know-it-all” attitudes at home.
As Haiti starts to rebuild, its development partners have perhaps just one chance to get this right. Recovery of Haiti must start by listening to what Haitians throughout the diaspora think is best for their neighbourhoods, their city and their country. In the months ahead, as rescue transitions to rebuilding, I will be watching to see which agencies are about doing for Haiti what Haitians say they need, rather than doing to Haiti what the agencies want to do. I will be watching to see which agencies and countries invest in communication channels like community radio and social media infrastructure so that Haitians can communicate effectively with each other and with the rest of the world. I will be watching to see how local Haitians, still living in their country and who may be poor, will be included in conversations about policy or legislative changes. I will be watching to see how quickly foreign-run schools are rebuilt and whether they will be reconstructed before the local schools and hospitals are repaired. I will be watching to see if local architects and engineers and builders will lead construction crews or whether they will be led by French or Danish or American crewmen?
As communicators, we can use our skills to push a self-rule agenda in post-earthquake Haiti. Never has it been as easy to stay in touch with Haitians throughout the world thanks to mobile telephony and text messaging, social networking, 24-hour news feeds via traditional media and the Internet. Imagine an online public conversation—or global community dialogue—put together within a matter of days during which we can exchange ideas, questions, expertise, blueprints, planning guidelines, resources and concerns.
Within hours of the earthquake on the night of January 12 the world realised that some text messages were getting through, some tweets were making contact and some people who escaped harm were back online. Let’s mobilise now to use such communication technology to help rebuild a country in new ways. Students and faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and elsewhere, for example, are perfecting software that allows average citizens to design their own houses simply and inexpensively. This will not require legions of large multinational corporations to come into Haitian neighbourhoods—as U.S. government contractors—to rebuild under the guise of charity and goodwill but really motivated by profit. How can we use communication knowledge and technology to gather a database of Haitian-born engineers, contractors, architects, plumbers, welders and road builders and get them more involved in reconstructing their country?
Haiti, in the midst of its despair, offers the world a chance to practice development concepts that too often exist only on paper: Citizen voice and participation, community dialogue, holding governments accountable for its actions, improved local decision-making, respecting and honouring local cultures, and monitoring and documenting social change.
In this issue of Mazi we have stories on several issues that will be useful to those working in Haiti. First we highlight the continued need to manage AIDS as a long-term global concern and not just a disease affecting certain vulnerable groups. We have stories on the work of the aids2031 communication working group as well as a photo essay and narrative on the public conversations in Cameroon about AIDS in the future. We also include excerpts from a CFSC Consortium-UNDP Oslo Governance Centre report on their joint Communication for Empowerment work. And there is an interesting work by Karen Greiner and Arvind Singhal on inviting social change.
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