With funding from the Reed College Internship Advantage Initiative, for eight weeks this summer I am working as the social media and outreach intern for the 501(c)3 non-profit organization Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), started by the inspiring Reed alumna Sasha Kramer. SOIL uses methods of ecological sanitation (EcoSan) to mitigate the ongoing sanitation crisis in Haiti that was only worsened by the 2010 earthquake. One of their most promising projects is the implementation of EcoSan toilets that turn human waste into much needed compost for sustainable agriculture.
Haiti came into the international limelight after the earthquake, and it seemed that every journalist and pundit felt entitled to present the public with their half-baked theories about why poverty persists in Haiti. International commentators have gazed at the Haitian poor with a mixture of disgust, pity, and fascination for centuries. In a 2010 New York Times article, David Brooks suggests that “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.” And although he does recognize that Haiti has “a history of oppression, slavery, and colonialism,” he points out that “so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well.” His analysis, like too many others, blames the victim and clearly ignores the particular history of colonization, slavery that has brutalized so many Haitians, starting with the indigenous population that was decimated by the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth century. Brooks cites the “progress” of Barbados without explaining who is benefiting from that “progress.” Barbados has been hospitable to tourism and transnational capital, but their economy still favors accumulation of capital with the elite classes and the benefits of tourism are not necessarily distributed equitably. It is not justified for arrogant observers like Brooks to patronizingly define universal “progress” and dictate what that should mean to Haitians.
Á la Arturo Escobar, I have serious reservations about mainstream development practices and the role and efficacy of NGOs and non-profits working in marginalized communities like in Haiti. Through working in Tanzania, Venezuela, and Saint Kitts, I have learned many lessons about community organizing and the importance of critically assessing the many representations and discourses of “progress” and the “other” that we have inherited as a part of our cultural milieux.
How can NGOs and non-profits work together with Haitians while avoiding the superiority complex that Brooks’ comments so exemplify? So many organizations flooded into the country after the earthquake with good intentions and often little historical awareness and certainly not a nuanced analysis of the politics of representation. Although many of these NGOs have been largely ineffective, it is not fair to dismiss the work of all organizations as examples of “NGO-ization,” the buzzword that refers to the trend of NGO proliferation amidst a hubristic Western view of development and a misunderstanding of power relations.
Disappointment with many failed NGOs in Haiti can lead to cynical inaction. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to supporting NGOs like SOIL. My education at Reed and my experiences abroad have taught me to be endlessly critical, but this is different from being cynical. SOIL is an established organization with a relatively large impact in a high-stakes community. They have a large Haitian staff and they are demonstrating the ability to use ecological sanitation practices to provide sustainable livelihoods for thousands of people. Progress in such a place is slow because of the many historical obstacles imposed on the island, but persistent organizations like SOIL deserve recognition and support despite a popular tendency to have only short term memory when it comes to analyzing poverty. Each international project that I have been involved with has changed my perspective on development work and added layers of complexity to my praxis, and I have no doubt that I will learn so much from my experience with SOIL. As a social media and outreach intern, I can’t wait to add nuance to their public image that will reflect the complexities of international alliances while promoting the great successes that SOIL has already seen with EcoSan methods.