Sunday, September 16, 2012


I went out in Petionville last night.

A friend of a room-mate of an associate of a colleague was having a birthday dinner at a restaurant, so I went for the drinks afterwards. The place was nice - rustic, but not in a kitschy, trying-to-be-rustic way. There were high ceilings, spiral staircases, and countertops covered in wax from candles that had melted ages before being rustic was fashionable. A band was performing a rhythm and blues set, and the dinner tables had been moved to allow the patrons to dance. There was a substantial crowd, fifty or so. Mostly expatriates. 

Eventually the party, along with new acquaintances that had been absorbed into the group, decided to move on to another part of town, requiring the calling of drivers to go from A to B, as security restrictions curtail walking after dark. 

At bar B, everyone has a few more drinks and is thus all the more merry. However, there is a subtle vibe slowly revealing itself that, as most of those present are earning a western wage in a developing country, there is no real limit to what can be bought, and from this, what can be drank, or what behaviour is above board. The proprietors and staff are not keen to quell the revelry; business is business. Don't get me wrong now. There weren't UN staff snorting cocaine from prostitutes' navels - it was more a vibe of aristocracy, which I can detect, like a fish detects when it's on land. After an hour or so, many began to depart from B in the direction of C or D or elsewhere, but I decided to call a car to head home. 

As I waited outside, I was slightly taken aback by the juxtaposition of the various elements of the scene before me: a group of people who, innocently enough, had started out on at dinner six hours ago and were now stumbling out onto the road, looking for friends and lovers and after-parties, as though they were in Dublin or New York or Ayia Napa; a cordon of UN Military Police  at either end of the street for reasons unknown but at a guess to ensure the safety of the internationals present, with blue lights flashing, and the standard issue rifles held casually by their sides; and a few Haitians, some informally performing the role of parking attendants, opening car doors and looking for tips, others merely sitting on a wall or a curb, watching the night unfold. 

It wasn't jaw-dropping, but it was certainly uncomfortable. It was almost as though some of the expats (and I should stress, some, not all) were of the opinion that because of the nature of their work, or the reputation of the various organisations by which they were employed, or on some other grounds, that this gave them the right to fly in the face of the accepted social and cultural norms of their present surroundings, and to act as they would in their place of origin, or on their holidays, or in a colony in the 1800s. I felt embarrassed.

Maybe I'm naive. I'm relatively new to the game, and I've only been here four weeks, so who am I to judge?

The passage through which I've come into this line of work has consistently tried to impress some form of ethical conscience onto my somewhat-malleable mind when it comes to the job. 

It started out as 'charity' work. 

I would opine that charity is never selfless. I have always gained more, both at home and abroad, than those who I have allegedly been helping, whether I've been aware of it at the time or not. Regardless of whether you were gaining or losing, there was always the idea that if you are 'doing your best' to assist others, constantly keeping their best interests at heart, then whatever your actual ability, the moral drive would push the physically manifested effort in a positive direction. At the same time, as this is the main force behind the work, any notion that diverges from this vector of selfless moral intention should be avoided if possible, as it detracts from the net benefit of the work. 

However, not everyone is Jesus. In fact, very few people are Jesus. I'd go so far as to say that less than 1% of human beings that have ever lived ever have been Jesus.

So separate to the work, you have your life. In which you look out for number one (and depending your situation and method of birth control, number two, number three, number four, and so on). And so, unless you live the holistic lifestyle of a Buddhist monk, you try to separate the vector L and the vector W to a certain degree. One selfish, one selfless-ish. As part of this life, I myself (and I daresay most of my peers) often feel the need to do things, many of them involving swearing at television screens, alcohol, the pursuit of romantic interests, laughing at somebody else's expense, and many other activities, most of which Buddhist monks aren't renowned for. Activities that might be seen as detrimental to the 'work', if they were as one embodied.

But when the two vectors of life and work are transposed to a tiny island nation in the Caribbean, there's very little room for them to avoid crossing each other.

At this stage I should click refresh and explain where my standing is now on the morality-driven aspect of 'charity' work. Firstly, the language has changed - I'll call it 'development' now; 'charity' has so many connotations, whereas 'development' is colder, and, crucially, measurable. (For the sticklers, I'm going to put humanitarianism under the umbrella of development). Another alteration to my not-so-staunchly held position includes the belief that while good intentions are fantastic, they don't always produce the best results, and thus professionalism is key. This has more or less been the status quo in the UN and NGOs for quite some time, but hey, I'm a bit slow. And so professionalism is the new driver behind the work, rather than ‘doing your best’. All that said, one thing that hasn't changed is that sense of the role of ethical responsibility. While good intentions won’t finish a job, without them, professionalism is almost futile. The sense is that any action that shows moral disregard for the work at hand should be avoided. There’s no point in trying to fill the bucket if you’re drilling holes in the bottom for the craic.

And so how is it that getting langered in Petionville is akin to some superfluous DIY? For me, it’s the issue of respect. 

The reason for the large expat presence here is either the devastation caused by the earthquake, or the extreme poverty that existed before it. It might be too great a leap to say that the money being spent by expats in bars and restaurants is essentially money donated by governments and members of the public to the aid agencies, especially given what I’ve just said about the need for professionals in development, but I could forgive any Haitian onlookers for making that argument. Understandably, people have to live, eat, drink, let off steam. Expats also need to integrate somewhat with their hosts, to prevent an ivory tower being built. But there are entrepreneurs in Petionville who are assisting in the construction of this ivory tower, nurturing a new bourgeois society, and probably facilitated by an existing one. 

I don't have any grand solution. There's a kind of Catch-22 scenario whereby if the expats were to try to integrate at any bar or restaurant in the city, they are at an increased risk - the city isn't yet safe. And yet creating a dichotomy of expat and local societies increases the chance of animosity between the two. As it is, a compromise would probably be the best option: integration where appropriate, and separation with respect. Always respect. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

City Boy Now (part 1 of some)

New organisation.
New project.
New town.

New ramblings of a Irish boy moving back and forth between a cubic comfort zone and its elliptical orbit.

There are plenty of people in the greater metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince who could more accurately communicate the day-to-day nuances and idiosyncrasies of the city, but sure I'll give it a bash, with the expectation that if you've not been here, you'll verify the information you deem overly-subjective using some other platform, and if you have been or are here, you can berate me in person. I will also, more than likely, compare it to Dublin on more than one occasion, something a significantly smaller proportion of people would have the means to do.

I arrived on Monday afternoon, just as the working week was getting into its stride. A driver had been sent to collect me from the airport, and he was standing at the exit of the terminal, holding an envelope displaying my last name first and my first name last, raising his eyebrows at every white male who passed him by. His NGO credentials had no doubt given him an advantage in getting to the head of the dense crowd that was leaning and tip-toeing to identify the faces coming out of the airport building.

We took off out of the airport car park and into the melee of dust and vehicles. The areas surrounding Toussaint Louverture International Airport appear to be a hub of the construction industry in the city. Large warehouses, with freight trucks and cement mixers in the car parks outside, line the road back towards Petionville, until they are eventually replaced, further south, by UN logistics compounds, and the strikingly new facade of the US embassy. At some stage, the driver pointed out the residence of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Haitian president who returned from exile in South Africa only last year, following a coup d'etat in 2004. The bars of the large white gates to the estate were narrowly spaced, and so did not allow anyone to peer through to the property beyond. However, as we drove by, I got the feeling that on the bustling street outside, I was the only one trying to do so, such was the normality of the situation to others.

We reached the office, where I was introduced to some members of the staff, and given some briefings on security. I was then driven the kilometer back to the expatriate residences, a large gated building containing a number of apartments. The majority of NGOs here house their expatriate workers in the areas on the hills around Petionville, to the south of the city, presumably for security reasons. The elevation, not to mention the superior build quality and appearance of the buildings, give the area a slight air of middle-class, which I find slightly uncomfortable, possibly due to a perceived fragility of this air, but more likely, out of guilt.

The apartment building has a balcony, that is positioned such that it allows one to view one-hundred and eighty degrees, taking in an amazing view of the sprawl down the hill below and beyond the bay to the west, and the mountains to the north and east. However, the rising hills behind, to the south, are blocked from view by the building itself, giving one a polarised vision, of all that is lower, and none that is higher. You can see those on a similar level either side of course, but no further up.

Some boys were playing football on the flat roof of a building across from the balcony this evening. In Petionville, a flat surface is a commodity, it seems, and the traffic winding its way around the myriad of cliff-side streets seems to be permanently lifting its collective hand-brake. Small steps. Up the hill. One car length at a time. Then brake. Two lengths if you're lucky. Or the slalom downhill, one foot hovering over the brake at all times, gauging the weight of the passengers against gravity, all the while craning to see around corners, to see where the next line of traffic ends.

There was lighting last night, and again tonight. I tried in vain to film some. Always the wrong direction at the wrong time. Despite the severity of the storms and the rain, (and my admittedly small sample size of two days), they seem to be quite predictable in terms of timing. Five o'clock, dark clouds begin to gather overhead. Six o'clock, the first patter of rain. Six-thirty, darkness with flashes of fork lightning. Eight o'clock, calm, with occasional blasts of pounding kompa music, or a man with a megaphone.