In a medieval fable, a feudal baron tells one of his serfs that if he can successfully provide the correct answers to three rather simple questions, he will be rewarded with his own plot of land. But before posing the questions, the baron informs the simple soul of three things:
- That he -- the baron -- will have no rest until he gets the correct answers;
- That in matter of fact, he does not know what the correct answers are, and
- That if he -- the serf -- does not provide the correct answers, he will be summarily banished from the estate -- essentially a sentence of death.
With the serf standing in frightened anticipation, the baron proceeds to ask three his questions:
- "What is the biggest thing in the world?"
- "What is the fastest thing in the world?" and
- "What is the best thing in the world?"
Before revealing the serf's answers (which will turn out to please the baron) let us digress and direct our attention to the Island of Hispaniola, specifically, the country of Haiti.
What's the connection?
Like the baron, the people of Haiti are capable of asking questions for which they do not know the answers. Like the baron, they will have no rest until the correct answers are provided. And like the serf, providing the correct answers are a matter of life-and-death.
Without question, Haiti has the most tortured history of any country in the Western Hemisphere. The world's first black republic, Haiti emerged as the result of a slave revolution against a French plantation society. Their right to exist was challenged by Napoleon who, in 1802, sent a military force to retake power from the ex-slaves. Stalemated, Napoleon's troops had to accept a peace treaty. Their national pride deeply wounded, the French eventually imposed crippling reparations on the fledgling nation which would hobble it for generations. Eventually the country would divide along racial lines, with a black north and a mostly mulatto south. This in turn would create built-in political instability in the island republic.
By 1915, that instability became a threat to American economic and political interests; so much so that U.S. troops invaded Haiti, and did not fully leave until after the end of World War II. For a short period of time during the post-war years, Haiti began to get its act together. Few people know -- or recall -- that in the 1950s, Haiti actually had an elite educational system which attracted students from all over the Caribbean and had developed a tourist industry replete with casinos, nightclubs and celebrity visitors.
Then came "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who -- with a generous assist from the Haitian military -- got himself elected president in 1957, and then declared himself "president for life." Papa Doc maintained his hold on power with the notorious Tontons Macoutes -- murderous enforcers who terrorized, tortured and murdered tens of thousands during a nearly 15-year reign of terror.
Then came "Baby Doc" Duvalier, his son, who was likewise made "president for life" in 1971. Although Baby Doc may not have been as bloodthirsty as his father, he was even more corrupt, and wound up robbing the impoverished nation blind. He was driven into French exile in 1986, and was replaced by a series of corrupt, ineffective leaders -- Namphy, Manigat, Cédras, Aristide and Préval among others -- who presided over a thoroughly corrupt, ineffective government incapable of providing even basic services like clean water, health care or education. Increasingly, Haiti's middle- and upper-middle class fled until today, more than a half-million of these largely college-educated expatriates reside in the United States -- mostly in Florida and New York. 60% of those remaining in Haiti were, by 2010, living on less than $2 a day.
Then came January 12, 2010 -- a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 315,000 Haitians, displaced more than 1.3 million, devastated Port-au-Prince, leveled
most government buildings, destroyed more than 60% of the hospitals, and killed more than 100 United Nations workers.
Then came the first cholera outbreak in a half a century.
Then came Hurricane Tomas.
Responding to the crisis, governments from around the world pledged $5.3 billion over the next two years for reconstruction. Additional contributions began pouring in from NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) and charitable groups. An Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) led, in part by President Bill Clinton, was created to monitor the spending of these billions. More than 1,300 displaced persons camps were established where hundreds of thousands of the dispossessed continue to live and are given basic support. As one writer has noted, "The tragedy of Haiti is that poverty levels here were so deep before the quake that even the basic support offered to those living in the camps is more than many had before."
So what is it that Haiti needs . . . besides virtually everything?
Asking this is akin to the feudal land baron's questions: he does not know the answers at the time of the asking, but believes that there are correct answers to be had.
In terms of Haiti, there is a growing consensus that this time around, money, foreign intervention, donor-driven recovery plans -- although absolutely essential -- are not the most critical core necessities. Rather, most experts are focused on two things:
- An effective Haitian political leadership, and
- Sound institutions built by Haitians, who, according to one expert from the Foreign Policy Association, ". . . must feel they have a stake in their nation's future."
In other words, this Haitian crisis -- unlike all the others -- must be met not so much with one-way donor aid and paternal assistance programs as with a concerted international effort aimed at helping the Haitians help themselves. At this point, there is no home-grown leadership in Haiti. There is no trust in the government for indeed, there is no government. Mistrust is so widespread that in an ironic sense, it is the one tie that binds this impoverished people together.
One contributing factor to Haiti's long term reconstruction should involve the expatriates, a majority of whom are college education, many of whom are quite successful and few of whom are living in poverty. A creative program under which they would agree to return to their native land -- temporarily or for the long term could be a positive factor in rebuilding the country. Then too, the international community, acting together, must provide not just the tools, but the knowledge of how to use those tools -- of how to build and create, how to administer and oversee, how to govern with benevolence and humanity.
So what's in it for the rest of this big round world? Historically, countries have lent longterm support to other countries when their own economic interests are involved. In the case of Haiti, there are few -- if any -- economic interests involved. In the case of Haiti, helping them to help themselves; planting the seeds of leadership and governance through which a brighter future can be harvested will have to be motivated by something other than economic self interest.
And here we return to our story . . .
The poor frightened serf closed his eyes and tried to think. All he could come up with was the sound of his own voice yelling out "You are a simple-minded fool; there is no way you can answer his questions . . ."
Finally, swallowing hard, the serf uttered what he knew would be the last three sentences he would ever say before banishment:
"The biggest thing in the world is . . . the earth."
"The fastest thing in the world is . . . an idea."
"The best thing in the world is . . . a good night's sleep."
His answers may have not been profound, but they were definitely correct.
Let the idea of helping Haiti help itself grow quickly . . . and for no other reason than rewarding ourselves with a good night's sleep.
For that is the reward that comes from doing the right thing.
©2011 Kurt F. Stone
(My wife Anna, who teaches English as a Second Language to Haitian refugees, asked me to include a link to a unique website -- "Teach the World Online" -- which offers people the opportunity to volunteer their time teaching people in Haiti -- from the comfort of their own home computer. Check it out!