Professor explores Haiti’s ‘endless present of crisis’

Adela Talbot // Western NewsAnthropology professor Greg Beckett explores the concept of crisis as a way of life in Haiti in a new book, There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince, published last month by University of California Press.

For more than a decade, Greg Beckett grappled with the idea of crisis. Over time, as a researcher in Haiti, the Western Anthropology professor came to realize the term doesn’t come with a universal definition.

“For us, the meaning of ‘crisis’ is something that is a fleeting event that disrupts normal life – an earthquake or a natural disaster ­– something that has a fairly short time span and is a disruption of routine,” Beckett said.

“In Haiti, a crisis is the opposite – it is routine, everyday life. You expect crisis and everything gets folded into the expectation and anticipation of constant disruption, constant disaster and constant disorder. People have to have ways of navigating that and living with it.”

Beckett explores this concept of crisis as a way of life in a new book, There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince, published last month by University of California Press.

“The book is trying to get at the experiential sense, rather than the outward sense of crisis that might justify intervention. The main through line for me is a constant rethinking of what crisis might mean; people use it in Haiti but they have a different sense of the word.”

Beckett’s research in Haiti dates back to 2002, encompassing his doctoral work at the University of Chicago. It spans more than 10 years in the field, emerging from an examination of an environmental crisis prior to the 2010 earthquake and the even-larger social crisis a result thereof.

There Is No More Haiti explores what it feels like to live and die with a crisis that never seems to end, he explained. It is about the experience of living amid ruins of ecological devastation, economic collapse, political upheaval, violence and humanitarian disaster. It likewise looks at how catastrophic events and political and economic forces shape aspects of everyday life.

“I’ve been fascinated with Haiti since the 1990s when I was an undergraduate student (at Western) taking classes on the Caribbean. I was interested in revolution; it was a time when Haiti looked like it was going to be this vibrant new democracy coming out of dictatorship,” Beckett noted.

“There has always been this density, layers of meaning in something we might just simply call an environmental crisis. In Haiti, there is no separation from an environmental crisis and an urban and political and humanitarian crisis; they are layered together and my research followed that.”

But the 2010 earthquake complicated matters in Haiti. Already vulnerable, the country suffered a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake, leaving nearly 300,000 dead and 1.5 million Haitians displaced. Even with an influx of more than $13 billion in disaster relief from the international community, Haiti has yet to show signs of recovery.

True, the earthquake was devastating, but people still saw it as chance to rebuild the country, Beckett noted. Most of those he worked with in Haiti, however, said the real the disaster was what came after.

“The reconstruction effort has spent billions of dollars to rebuild Haiti as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. People are wondering where the money went. Haiti is not rebuilt by any means. People are still living in tents and shelters and most relocated people have gone to slums,” he explained.

“All of the underlying conditions were made worse by the relief and reconstruction efforts. The biggest thing that’s happened since is a sense of frustration with the international community’s approach to humanitarian intervention, to international development and a United Nations presence in Haiti. Haiti has been destroyed by humanitarian relief rather than helped by it. It changed the political tenor on the ground; the money was squandered.”

If the aid money had been given to Haitians, the country would have been rebuilt, Beckett continued. But instead of helping people on the ground, the money went to infrastructure that would benefit foreigners who came to intervene and invest – new street signs, fixed roads, air-conditioned SUVs for foreign workers and a “fancy hotel.”

It is hard to convince the international community that development programs should just give money. The idea runs against the proverbial notion of ‘teaching someone to fish.’

“If something good comes of this, I hope it is that the global humanitarian apparatus learns some lessons and begins to change. But it is a big ship to turn around,” he noted.

In the meantime, political turmoil continues to add to the ever-present crisis in Haiti.

Earlier this month, following crippling nationwide protests, Haitian Prime Minister Jean Henry Ceant’s government was dissolved following a motion of no confidence. Haiti has had several prime ministers in recent years. Its President, Jovenel Moise, remains in office, despite calls for him to step down on account of ballooning inflation, a weakening currency and allegations of misused funds from a Venezuelan oil subsidy scheme.

The idea of ‘there is no more Haiti’ – that lends itself to the book’s title – is a common phrase in Port-au-Prince, Beckett said. Not meant as fatalism or resignation, it seems to be a recognition that Haitians cannot hold onto the past or wishes for the country of the past. It is commonly understood that one cannot come in, invest and return to some romanticized version of a country long gone, Beckett said.

“A future they could recognize as Haitian is at stake. How do people call up the sense of the future or how would to live in that future if you don’t know you will survive? They can’t go back and it’s not clear where the country is going. People are stuck in an endless present of crisis and don’t know how to get out. The idea of ‘there is no more Haiti’ conjures up the idea that what is being offered to them by the international community won’t work.”

What inspires and interests Beckett is the lack of resignation in Haiti, in spite of constant crisis.

“They don’t give up; they don’t stop; they don’t have the luxury of not having hope in the future in some way. So there is constant energy and vibrancy to build networks of support and solidarity,” he said. “The political movements emerging now are a scaling up of some of those things, of survival strategies of tight networks of friendship and family that people have.”