Commentary: Haiti’s culture and politics of social exclusion
By Jean H Charles
The concept of social exclusion and its corollary, hospitality for all, have been the hallmark of my inquiry in most of these columns. As such, when the Haiti National Observatory on Poverty and social exclusion in coordination with the Ministry of Planning and External Cooperation organized three days colloquia on social exclusion, I jumped on the opportunity to attend. It was not easy. The Ministry of Culture and Communication (in charge of informing the public on the activities of the government) did not have specific information on the forum for the event.
Jean H Charles MSW, JD is Executive Director of AINDOH Inc a non profit organization dedicated to building a kinder and gentle Caribbean zone for all. He can be reached at: jeanhcharles@aol.
When I found out on my own, I was denied entry at the door in spite of my proper press credentials. The culture of social exclusion was also there in its entire hideous specter. I had to be rescued and ushered in by the Coordinator of the event Mr Jean Robert Simonise, a friend. He is one of those Haitian luminaries who are pushing the plate to render Haiti consistent with its motto of equality and opportunity for all.
Haiti, along with Guyana in the Caribbean, practices to the utmost, the politics of social exclusion that compromise its harmonious growth and development. In Guyana, the PPP caters almost exclusively to the ethnic Indian population, while the PNC speaks for and defends mostly the interest of the black population, each one vying to capture for their own benefits the spoils and the privilege of power.
Haiti, after its glorious epic of liberation from the yoke of slavery in 1804, enjoyed only 15 years of nation building experience in its 200 years plus of independence. The concept of nation promoted by the founding fathers, Toussaint Louverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe lasted until 1820. At Christophe’s death, Haiti reverted into a de facto apartheid system that lasted unperturbed until today.
Haiti practices social, political and economic exclusion against its rural sector that represents 85 percent of its population. It practices social and political exclusion against its Diaspora that represents 3 percent of its population and its exclude its mulatto population (2 percent) from the political arena. When only ten percent of the population enjoys the benefits of full citizenship, one can understand why Haiti is neither in peace nor sustainable?
This conference was the first national timid experience to concert about, reflect upon and come out with some solutions to propose to the government in order to diminish the impact of social exclusion upon the majority of the population. It was funded by the Canadian agency of Cooperation and hosted at the beautiful hotel Montana. The Canadian Ambassador to Haiti, his Excellency Mr Gilles Rivard, took an active part in the deliberations.
The theme of the conference: “For Haiti to have a chance, all Haitians must have the same opportunity,” is enshrined into the social motto of my organization: “Hand in hand, let’s build a Haiti that will be hospitable to all”. This leitmotiv was repeated in all the workshops.
School as a focus of social mixing
Haiti has 565 rural counties; 23 of them have absolutely no rudiment of schools, private, religious or public; 145 of them have no public schools. The Haitian Institute of Statistics informs that 37.7 percent of Haitian children in age to attend school are not in school, the majority of that population is in the rural areas.
The secondary schooling and the university system are inadequate to absorb the graduates of the primary level, only 18 percent of the beginning class entered into the secondary level. The statistics of 2004 are an indication of the dark picture. Out of 15,500 admitted to the Baccalaureate (High School), only 2,300 have found a seat at the University.
In addition, the schools are completely segregated; the sons and the daughters of the privilege Haitians attend exclusively the better private schools denying the opportunity to the less privilege to enjoy the emulation of the transfer of social mores leading to success in business and in the professional life.
The professional preparatory schools in agriculture built during the American occupation have ceased to function under the pretext of lack of funds but I suspect there were public and political reasons behind the closure of the five centers of professional formation leading to the technical degree in agriculture. Leaving the rural world in ignorance facilitates the dynasty of the Duvaliers, the rule of violence and the demagogic populism of the successive governments.
Left alone by the State government, the rural mass is easily manipulated politically, it is the lumping proletariat at the gates of the cities, organized in ghetto where violence, rape, kidnapping is the currency of subsistence. How to provide schooling for all was one of the first questions to be answered by the participants? Professor Pierre Buteau a former Minister of Education suggested that Haiti must transform its young unruly, undisciplined mass into new elite with citizenship aspirations.
Rural production and wealth formation
Haiti used to provide in the 1950 all its needs in food stock, since the 1980s the country has suffered a steep decline where today it imports more than 50 percent of the food needed by the population. According to a study done by the Vanderbilt University in 2006, 30 percent of the Haitian population lives in a state of extreme poverty or less than two dollars day, when the study was repeated in 2008 the number has increased to 48 percent. The majority of this population subsists through foreign transfers that diminish in amount and in frequency due to the economic debacle in the United States.
Access to credit is also in the exclusivity mode of the Haitian business culture; a PNUD report indicates that out of 400.000 clients, 133 customers received more than two-thirds of the loan available for lending. Agriculture that represents the largest sector in the country receives only 0.12 percent of the total credit banking circulation.
The picture is so dark in Haiti that actually 80 percent of the population lives with two dollars per day and 60 percent of the people live with one dollar a day.
Marc Bazin, Haiti’s former Prime Minister, with his panama hat, loomed large in the deliberations. Out of power, he has been reflecting on the topic of social exclusion in a weekly column with the Nouvelliste, Haiti prominent daily paper. A Barack Obama administration leading Haiti’s destiny would have named Bazin, Haiti social exclusion czar. “To reduce poverty in Haiti, you must reduce inequality, reducing inequality dictates targeting the agriculture sector, the driving force of the Haitian economy.”
I have suggested in my panel that the Haitian government invest half a million dollars in each one of the rural counties. With a national budget of 150 million US dollars and 450 million of international contribution, this proposal seems far-fetched.
The reality is closer to the spirit of the proposal. The Inter American Bank of Development has attributed 625 million dollars to Haiti in 2003; four years later Haiti still has 458 million unspent dollars or 73 percent of the allocated funding. A proposal of 300 millions that target the 565 rural counties of Haiti with rural infrastructure, irrigation, loan and credit, technical support for production and marketing, education, health habitat and environment renewal will look not only sexy to the donor agencies but will spur the Haitian economy while incrementally reducing the social inequalities.
Mr Jean Max Bellerive Haiti Minister of Planning and External Cooperation can be as bold as the topic of the colloquium to engage Canada to take the lead in helping to shape such a proposal.
Faced with the stark vignette of Haiti as the nation where inequality is the most vivid in the Western Hemisphere, I have suggested with a grain of salt to the coordinator of the colloquium that the specter of 1789 is looming wide in the horizon. The slave holders were talking openly about equality and liberty in the salons in France, the echoes of hospitality for all were heard by the Haitian founding fathers; few years later, they took their destiny in hand and the Haitian revolution and the independence was the result.
Two hundred years later, the Haitian masses can be as bold as the Haitian founders have been. The echo of hospitality for all has been heard in the media and has been read in the banderoles inviting the public to the event. Haiti future can no longer be more things change more they remain the same.
The Haitian government and the international community should be good students of history and help shape a viable Haiti where the social inequalities are no more the fabric of the society. The collegiality and the decorum at the colloquium was the calm weather before the storm. Taking shelter with an affirmative action program towards the most afflicted ones would be a wise initiative indeed!