Sokari Ekine is the co-editor along with Hakima Abbas of the “Queer African Reader” published in April 2013.
The QAR is a collection of writings, analysis and artistic works that engage with the struggle for LGBTI liberation and inform sexual orientation and gender variance. Published at a time of increasing draconian anti-homosexuality legislation on the continent, this is an extremely important piece of work from African Queers and allies from the continent. Only two weeks ago Nigeria with the largest population in Africa passed the Same Sex Marriage Bill which despite it’s name has little to do with Same Sex Marriage. The Bill punishes same sex relationships with up to 14 years in prison. Also facing a 10 year prison sentence is anyone failing to report or supporting same sex relationships, anyone seen to be touching someone of the same sex and thereby deemed to be ‘gay’ and any organization that works on behalf of LGBT people. For more on the Bill see here.
In her interview with the Public Archive Ms Ekine discusses the issue of aid and development in Haiti where she presently lives and also the similarities between the Same-Sex Marriage Bill and the US Patriot Act. Exerts from the interview below
In one of your “occasional musings” on Haiti on Black Looks, you point out that two criticisms of the deliverance of aid and charitable support to countries like Haiti are the introduction of inappropriate technologies without local consultation or participation and the other the long-term sustainability of projects. What have you seen in Haiti over the past couple of years in regards to both? How would you assess the implementation of foreign aid projects as we pass the four-anniversary of the earthquake?
Volumes have been written on the ineffectiveness and lack of sustainability of development aid but the issues can be broken down according to two factors: waste and dependence. In addition to the usual governmental and non-governmental aid agencies, there are hundreds of faith based groups and churches in Haiti. With the right connections and a few photos of starving black children, a US based charity or church can raise thousands over a weekend, employ x number of people and arrive in rural Haiti with free food, medicines, clothes and religion. I contend that we don’t know what many religious groups and other charities are really doing in Haiti. There are few regulations, no visas requirements and no monitoring of projects or churches. Every flight I have taken to or from Port-au-Prince, there has been at least one mission and some I have spoken too have been coming for years. They tell you this with pride completely unaware or maybe not, that they are contributing to a culture of dependency which keeps them in jobs and Haitians in poverty.
In many cases the technology might be appropriate but because consultation is minimal — in the sense that insufficient research takes place of local resources available, local needs and local infrastructure — projects fail or soon become unsustainable. Take for example a water purification project of considerable cost, was to provide clean water to a number of internally displaced camps and poor neighborhoods. The project organizers insisted that the water be provided free of charge, which is a laudable but not practical without considerable ongoing funding to pay for a water truck, drivers and maintenance. I understand wanting to provide free water but even if there was funding for free delivery, how long could this be sustained? The cost would be thousands every year and we need to ask is there another way? Can this money be used to create jobs so people can become financially independent? I don’t know the answer but meanwhile the purifier lies idle and no one gets water free or otherwise which is rather sad.
We can compare this with another project/enterprise for a group of 20 women living on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The women have received a small amount of funding to build a water storage tank for wash water and a small water purifier for drinking water. Once completed the women will have low cost water for themselves plus be able to sell the surplus and at the very least they will break even.
There are so many examples like this where the technology sounds great but quite often the actual application is not thought through. Another problem is that NGOs arrive, offer services or technology, make all kinds of promises but fail to follow up with the necessary support. This has happened to SOPUDEP who were provided with compost toilets but promises of support never materialized. The system became too expensive to maintain and this summer they reverted to traditional ‘deep hole’ latrines. The school was also offered ‘solar’ cookers but they refused them because they were totally unpractical. You cannot prepare daily food for 700 children with solar cookers!
But it’s not just with technology that interventions are whimsical. In a recent article on Restaveks, Nicholas Kristof concludes that “free and accessible birth control” is one way to fight trafficking in Haiti and presumably globally since this is a global problem. The idea of providing birth control to Haitian women is highly problematic, ending poverty by ending the birth of poor children to poor mothers is not a solution but a depopulation strategy. It does not tackle the structural causes of poverty.
You’ve also written on the environmental costs of “reconstruction.” What have you seen and what are the major issues in Haiti concerning development, sustainability, and eco-system preservation?
The piece you refer to concerns the degradation of the riverbed in Pernier. In the period after the earthquake, particularly in the past two years there has been this massive building boom largely fueled by government projects and Haitian-American monies. In the past year alone parts of Port-au-Prince such as the rich neighbourhood of Petion-Ville have been completely transformed. It’s great that rebuilding is taking place but it’s only in the richer neighborhoods and it comes at a high price to the environment. Haiti is a mountainous and hilly country and right now some of those hills are disappearing. For example on the outskirts of the Port-au-Prince along Route Nationale 1 huge chunks of hillside are being cut out to provide building materials. The same goes for river beds which are being excavated for the gravel. The photos I took only show the present and I am sorry I didn’t take photos three years ago so people could see the difference. Imagine 24/7 removing the gravel from the riverbed? First the trees were destroyed now the hillsides and the rivers are going the same way. It’s an unregulated paradise for business and the government, which collects taxes for destroying the environment.
In years to come Haitians will again be blamed for destroying their rivers and hills much in the same way they are blamed for destroying the trees. But when you investigate, it is not the people but big business and corrupt governments who are to blame. In her trilogy Love Anger, Madness, first published in 1968, the Haitian novelist Marie Vieux-Chauvet, described how foreigners forced Haitian peasants to cut down their trees for sale or starve. We don’t hear this story. Rather, it is always poor Haitians cutting trees for firewood whereas thousands of trees were cut by corporate greed and government corruption. The farmers knew this would destroy their land and tried to protest, but their lives were worth less than the trees! Then charities arrive with food, clothing, and the bible to save those whose land and livelihood were destroyed.
You introduce your first post in the Haiti – Feminist Series on Black Looks by noting: “One of the stories least reported has been the one about Haitians organizing for themselves, particularly stories presented within a framework of feminist organizing and movement building.” Can you say a little about the different types of feminist organizing and movement building that you’ve encountered in Haiti?
What stands out for me are the everyday acts of solidarity and mutual support. Support networks are crucial as in Haiti there is always a crisis but just the energy needed to live and work through the week is tremendous and sometimes overwhelming. The violence of poverty is overwhelming – we of the privileged speak about it, write about it, and stare at it through tinted or even open windows but really we don’t know.
This is not to say there are not differences, but one’s religious beliefs or sexual orientation are not determining factors for coming together. I’m not talking about grand campaigns but rather small, focused actions that respond to the practical needs of women and children in poor communities. Secondly, building relationships within and between neighborhoods and communities, between issues and creating support networks where women are at the center. What this means is that the possibility of change becomes real, not a dream – though dreaming is good too.
Most recently I have noticed there is a growing focus and concern over sustainability – how to integrate movement building and organizing with income generation that is viable, possible over the long-term, and that does not force people to have to rely on donors even if the donors themselves are working in solidarity. However these are small pockets of organizing. Overall when I look at Haiti in the present, it is hard to see how the majority of lives have improved. Some people made a lot of money in the aftermath of the earthquake and a small few are still making money but the poor are being erased. I think they are in a fight for their lives.
Continue reading on the Public Archive