Canada, Haiti and the Pygmalion complex

May 1, 2016

Canadian soldiers discuss a civil-military co-operation project with school leaders in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, September 2013.

Canadian soldiers discuss a civil-military co-operation project with school leaders in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, September 2013. 

“Why did you take my independence from me? Why did I give it up? I'm a slave now, for all my fine clothes.” 

I often recall those two questions, their sad assessment, when I think back to some of the women I met in Port-au-Prince, Haiti during an international health conference in October 2012. It’s not that anyone spoke them directly while I was in the country (I was on the organizing committee for the conference). As a matter of fact, they are from the final act of George Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion, spoken by Eliza, the flower girl turned elite socialite of early-20th century London. It’s the parallels between Eliza’s situation and that of modern Haiti that continue to disturb me today.

In Pygmalion, Eliza’s fate is sealed when Higgins and Pickering, two distinguished members of London’s smug upper class, make a bet they can take the girl out of the gutter and transform her into a duchess. Whether or not their intentions are good, the two men are undeniably prejudiced toward the poverty-stricken pupil, who has no say in the matter of her own transformation. Eliza becomes an obsessive project for her self-proclaimed mentors, who are “always talking, teaching, dressing and inventing” her anew. Another character, Higgins’ mother, perfectly describes their role in Eliza’s life when she compares the men to “two big babies playing with their live doll.”

When people in a position of power set out to help less fortunate people from a different culture, class or race, are they not a bit like Higgins and Pickering, playing with their favourite toys? 

On January 31 and February 1, 2003, Canadian, U.S. and French government officials sat down in Ottawa to discuss the future of Haiti. No Haitian representatives were present. It was a bit like a high-stakes game of Risk, with the outcome that, in 2004, 530 real Canadian soldiers would be sent to help overthrow Haiti’s democratically elected government, led at the time by Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In the decade that followed, Canada has been involved in Haiti in a variety of ways that have, to some extent, obscured the coup, but whose effectiveness—and legitimacy—can be challenged in their own right.  

In 2005, Canada spent $22.5 million to establish the country’s post-coup electoral infrastructure; there have been consistent reports of fraud in every election since then. Two successive Haitian deputy justice ministers were ex-employees of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and they remained on the Canadian government payroll while in office. Canadian money was also used to fund police training and build prisons, like the high-security Croix-des-Bouquet’s facility from which hundreds of prisoners escaped in 2014 (only a dozen were re-incarcerated). More recently, news of Canada’ involvement in Haiti has focused on several Quebec police officers caught engaging in sexual activities with Haitian women, against UN rules, while on mission in the country.

The role of NGOs in Haiti

Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, writer and community activist Jean St-Vil, also known as Jafrikayiti, was one of the early voices critical of the role played by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their workers in the lives of third-world people, Haitians in particular. St-Vil was invited to speak at Concordia University on September 18, 2010, during another conference I had helped organize. The topic was “Helping Haiti: With Whom, With What and How?” The Haitian born St-Vil pleased anti-interventionists in the room, and shocked those who had come for answers about where to donate their time or money, by stating that NGOs were part of the problem, not part of the solution, in Haiti.

The other speakers at the 2010 conference were from the djaspora: the sons and daughters of Haitians born abroad or who left Haiti at a young age to live lotbόdlo (overseas). There was Alberto Syllion, one of the first black men hired as a firefighter by Montreal’s fire department, Ricardo Lamour, an artist who was, at the time, working for the Montreal-based Centre for International Studies and Co-operation (CECI), and Dominique Anglade, the daughter of Haitian-born feminist Mireille Neptune and ex-Haitian political advisor George Anglade, who both lost their lives in the 2010 earthquake while vacationing in Haiti. 

Also at Concordia that September evening was Johanne St-Onge, who you could describe as a professional foreign aid worker. In Haiti she would have been referred to as blan, a word that means white but is also used ironically to designate a know-it-all. St-Onge was a human resources consultant who had been to Haiti to train Haitian government officials in HR best practices. She and St. Vil ended up arguing about the history of slavery in Haiti—St-Onge said the activist’s remarks about the atrocities committed by European slave owners were not “nuanced” enough. 

Elaborating on her comment in a subsequent letter to St. Vil, which she shared with conference organizers, St-Onge insisted she was just trying to understand his point of view. Her tone was dismissive, as if she, the outside expert, should naturally have a better grasp of Haiti’s past and current reality than a person who studied its history and lived in the country. St-Onge’s attitude was not especially startling at the time, nor would it be today. It is the common viewpoint of many foreigners who appear on a mission to teach Haitians how to be, or not to be, Haitian. The Higgins and Pickerings of Shaw’s Pygmalion need not always be male.

Nearly six years later, much has changed for the djasporas at the Concordia conference. Despite experiencing difficulties at first, Syllion has been to Haiti a few times and got involved in a project to help build an elementary school in Debussy, a small town near Port-au-Prince. Raising money remains a challenge. Lamour resigned from CECI to focus on his social and artistic projects. He grew disillusioned with the international aid system and expressed it in his songs. He also got involved in awareness campaigns and university conferences with the notable participation of Quebec author Alain Deneault, whose books have denounced Canadian companies involved in offshore tax havens and controversial mining practices in Africa.

Dominique Anglade was elected to the National Assembly in 2015 and appointed Minister of Economy, Science and Innovation by Premier Philippe Couillard. Kanpe, the NGO she founded in 2010, is well known in Montreal for the Haitian-style carnival it organizes each February. However, one of its other main activities, the promotion of microcredit, has come under fire for several years for its ineffectiveness at alleviating poverty or improving lives in developing countries. 

In Haiti, we hear about the stranglehold that banks and NGOs have on so-called micro-entrepreneurs stuck repaying loans with interest rates as high as 50%. While microcredit can be acquired for less, it is not uncommon for interest rates to reach 75% or even 100%. In Latin America and South Africa, the microfinance sector has generated an economic crisis comparable to the 2007-08 subprime crisis in the United States in terms of race-based exploitation and a widening of the inequality gap. St-Vil was invited back to Montreal in November 2015 by IRIS, the socioeconomic research institute I work for in Quebec, to speak about the concept of dispossession in general and to describe how the Haitian people are being dispossessed of their livelihoods, culture and resources. 

Can foreign aid be fixed? 

As 2015 ended and 2016 began, I had come to the conclusion that aid from outsiders is frequently laced with prejudices, weakening rather than uplifting those it is intended to help. Having been involved in several conferences and Haiti-related projects (with mixed results), I don’t have a simple answer to the question of how someone who genuinely wants to help the Haitian people should go about it. I am certain it requires acknowledging the many failures of humanitarianism in general, and a critical stance toward the impact of foreign NGO workers specifically. 

In 2012, writer and historian Teju Cole coined the term White Savior Industrial Complex in a series of tweets that went viral, sparking debate about the harms of western sentimentality in foreign interventions. “[T]here is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference,’” he wrote in a subsequent article for The Atlantic. “There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s 2013 movie Assistance Mortelle (Mortal Assistance in English) is an indictment of post-earthquake humanitarian interventions in Haiti. Novelist and political activist Arundhati Roy warned, in 2004, against the “NGO-ization of resistance” and its interference with the self-reliance capacity of social movements in formerly colonized countries.

The nature of Canadian foreign aid in Haiti has been highly controversial since the 2004 coup against Aristide. But another important shift occurred when the previous Conservative government appointed Julian Fantino to helm CIDA. The former Ontario police chief disregarded legislation from 2008 stipulating that the fundamental goal of foreign aid was poverty reduction. Instead, under Fantino’s watch, aid would be unapologetically crafted for the promotion of Canadian private economic interests abroad.  

When, in 2013, CIDA completely disappeared into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (now Global Affairs Canada), Fantino described the move as being part of the government’s “approach to maximizing Canadians’ development investment by leveraging private sector dollars and expertise.” Criticism that Canadian taxpayer dollars would now be garnishing the bottom lines of private mining companies fell on deaf ears. Many in the international development sector would have pushed a sigh of relief when the Conservatives were removed from power in the fall election. Still, despite a change in style from Prime Minister Trudeau, the legacy of the Harper government appears to live on. 

The new Liberal government announced recently its intention of taking over the UN’s MINUSTAH mission in Haiti from current lead country Brazil. The possibility of a renewed Canadian engagement, which could involve 2,000 Canadian soldiers being deployed to Haiti, triggered a protest letter from Montrealers of Haitian origin who view MINUSTAH as an occupying force. The protest letter points out that the UN has been implicated in the spread of cholera in 2010, an epidemic that has killed thousands, and that MINUSTAH faces allegations of rapes and murders.  

To be interested in taking command of a military organization with such a questionable track record, the Trudeau government must be quite confident in its transformative influence. But will a Canadian-led MINUSTAH one day be facing disgruntled Haitians, like Pygmalion’s Eliza, asking why Canada took their country’s independence away? 

Haiti has been in a deep economic and political crisis since elections held in August and October of 2015 were contested and cancelled due to massive fraud. At time of writing, a presidential run-off vote originally scheduled for December 27 had yet to occur due to allegations of ballot tampering and other irregularities. Progressive voices in Haiti are calling for an audit of the whole electoral process, asking whether the role of Canada or any other country is fundamentally anti-democratic.  

Before going forward with any new MINUSTAH mission, we should consider auditing the entirety of Canadian involvement in Haiti. Canadians who genuinely want to help Haitians should heed the words, Eliza-like in their own way, of Aboriginal activist Lila Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

 Jennie-Laure Sully is a community activist and researcher at the Institute for Socioeconomic Research (IRIS) in Montreal. Her interests include North–South relations, citizen empowerment, health care policies and social justice.

This article was published in the May/June 2016 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.