The Transactions that Matter

28 Jan

The initial feeding frenzy that was Haiti is dying down.

All – or at least most – of the amateurs have left. The UN has fully got it’s act together… well, I should clarify: there’s a large UN compound with a massive car park jammed with white Landcruisers. There’s a gazebo in the middle with connectivity and a bunch of tents all around. It’s NGO-ville. The jokes and the urban legends of the Haiti Earthquake Response exist now:

MINUSTAH has the nick-name “tourista.”

Already you can hear NGO staff discussing their respective preferences for Nepali versus Argentinian UN “blue helmet” forces.

There’s a great story about some dork from a small NGO that no one has heard of pinning a US military “MP” patch to his agency logo T-shirt and then sitting conspicuously in a coordination meeting asking all kinds of dumb questions…

I’ve slept in an actual bed for three nights in a row now. I’m eating real food (not just granola bars and Guinness) on a regular basis. In a few days I’ll exchange the hotel I’ve been in since arrival for a team house. We’re about to acquire 10 new vehicles – most probably white Landcruisers.

In the first two weeks it was about visibility while the cameras were rolling. Getting your agency’s sign or T-shirted horde of volunteers in the background or foreground was the media game. But now it’s about reeling in big chunks of the real funding from the real donors. The real feeding frenzy has begun.

WFP is about to dump a positively massive amount of food on Port au Prince for general distribution. And now the obvious conversations are all around who is going to distribute it, and where. CARESaveVisionConcernFam… are all vying for zones and MTs. The tonnage discussion is driven by the population of each zone; the zone discussion is driven by which UN military actor is in charge of that zone. This weekend is going to be full-on distribution.

USAID/OFDA is looking more long-term. They’re focusing their cash on shelter, wat/san and livelihoods. And fair enough – this time I agree with OFDA. Shelter, for the moment, is all about integration with Wat/San. All those people have got to poop somewhere. Livelihoods is about very early recovery stuff. Cash for work to clear rubble, and the like. And to that end, as of about yesterday, you see brigades of people in USAID T-shirts cleaning up around Port au Prince.

Oh yeah… what about actual Haitians?

The number/amount of spontaneous markets along the streets of Port au Prince seems to increase daily. A lot, daily. I haven’t actually counted or done randomized trials, and so should probably pipe the heck down. My methodology for comparing over time: I used to be only able to get through half of the “Haiti” playlist on my iPod between the hotel and the office. Now I get through the whole thing.

And somehow I find that to be a real testament to the resilience of people (the spontaneous markets, not the bit about my playlist). There are brief moments, through the window of the car, when I see Haitian women squatting on the sidewalk by their piles of sugar cane or plantains, and it looks just like a normal Caribbean market. And then we’ll move on and I’ll see more sellers, camped out in front of a pile of rubble and twisted re-bar, and we’ll be back to post-earthquake Haiti.

By all accounts the Haitians are sick to death of being assessed and – for goodness sake – photographed. And who can blame them? If I had a dollar for every white dude I’ve seen walking around with a photogs vest and big camera shooting pictures of rubble or people bathing, I could totally have a much nicer motorcycle than the one I have now. (One photographer to fellow photographers: guys, how about asking people before photographing or videoing them. How would you like an endless stream of foreigners poking a lens in your face in front of the rubble of your house for days on end? A little common courtesy?)

For the record I am only photographing either scenes or else portraits of those people who I have specifically asked, and who have also agreed to be photographed.

As usual, long after the international media has packed up and left and ended coverage, it is the survivors – the Haitians – themselves sifting thought the piles of broken concrete, salvaging what they can and doing their best to get on with life.

I remember reading once, a long time ago, that in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the economy of Vietnam (a country that I have devoted a great deal of time and energy studying) basically came down to mundane, daily financial transactions between women. The profit margin on a kilogram of rice; the price of a baby duck; the price of a gold ring; the maintenance cost of a bicycle.

And while my point is not to highlight the gendered dimension of the economy that clearly exists in Vietnam and most probably exists here in Haiti as well, I can’t help but think that in the end the recovery of Haiti will come down to equally simple, mundane things. Of course we’ll pump in our loads of WFP lentils and rice and cooking oil. We’ll hand out loads of NFIs and different kinds of ‘kits.’ We’ll run mobile clinics and do extension. And don’t get me wrong – that stuff all matters. It will make a difference, and mostly for good. But let’s keep things in perspective.

Several NGOs will get their foothold in Haiti and possibly the world by playing their cards right in this emergency response. Many will remember this earthquake response as a time of winning grants and thinking through Civ/Mil issues and handling large quantities of stuff.

And again, while those “big” things do matter, others would argue that the social recovery – the recovery that matters most – will, in the end, be about those simple, mundane, daily transactions: those piles of plantains being sold, a plastic bag full at a time, along the streets of Port au Prince.

5 Responses to “The Transactions that Matter”

  1. Rachel 29 January, 2010 at 3:06 am #

    Thank you very much for taking the time to write these posts.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. James Shelley | Inventing a Planet » When Compassion Fails to Help? - 22 February, 2010

    […] By all accounts the Haitians are sick to death of being assessed and – for goodness sake – photographed. And who can blame them? If I had a dollar for every white dude I’ve seen walking around with a photogs vest and big camera shooting pictures of rubble or people bathing, I could totally have a much nicer motorcycle than the one I have now… How would you like an endless stream of foreigners poking a lens in your face in front of the rubble of your house for days on end? … [By J. from the blog Tales From the Hood: Transactions that Matter] […]

  2. Inventing a Planet » Blog Archive » When Compassion Fails to Help - 8 June, 2010

    […] By all accounts the Haitians are sick to death of being assessed and – for goodness sake – photographed. And who can blame them? If I had a dollar for every white dude I’ve seen walking around with a photogs vest and big camera shooting pictures of rubble or people bathing, I could totally have a much nicer motorcycle than the one I have now… How would you like an endless stream of foreigners poking a lens in your face in front of the rubble of your house for days on end? … [By J. from the blog Tales From the Hood: Transactions that Matter] […]

  3. Good Intentions Are Not Enough » Blog Archive » Interesting articles, posts, and guidelines from late Jan and early Feb 2010 - 27 June, 2010

    […] The Transactions that Matter and Hallelujah – both written by Tales from the Hood about life on the ground in Haiti […]

  4. Good Intentions Are Not Enough » Blog Archive » Disaster Tourism and Haiti - 28 June, 2010

    […] it’s written by J., an experienced aid worker currently on the ground in Haiti. In his post The Transactions that Matter J. states: By all accounts the Haitians are sick to death of being assessed and – for goodness […]

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