A Voice for the Voiceless


Robert Maguire, Elliott School of International Affairs

A Voice for the Voiceless: Youn Vwa Pou Pep La Report

A Voice for the Voiceless

Reporting from Gabriel Shirvar. Edited by Nicholas Johnson.

Dr. Maguire began his introduction with the characteristic Haitian call-and response greeting, “Onè … Respè.” A few appreciative chuckles revealed the Haitian members of the audience, and Maguire acknowledged them with a smile before briefly explaining the meaning behind the greeting for the rest of the audience: the greeting is a promise of mutual honor and respect resulting in a bond of trust between the participants. Maguire then gave a brief background on his own history in Haiti, from his first trip in 1974, past his 100th trip in 1990, to his frequent sojourns in the country that continue to this day. Dr. Maguire has been involved throughout the course of a slew of natural and socioeconomic disasters, the most infamous of which being the 2010 earthquake.

The impetus behind this symposium, explained Maguire, came after another, earlier conference, “Who ‘Owns’ Haiti? Sovereignty in a Fragile State: 2004-2014.” The final session was particularly inspirational, and the moderator Haiti Special Coordinator Tom Adams requested that Dr. Maguire organize another symposium the next year, on what would be shortly after the fifth anniversary of the post-earthquake United Nations Donors’ Conference of March 2010. One report presented at the donors’ conference addressed bottom-up development—looking at ‘acute-on-chronic’ conditions—and provided five concrete recommendations for giving a voice to Haiti’s voiceless through post-earthquake recovery and development. Research for the report was conducted with the participation of 1,750 Haitians participating in 156 focus groups, and the support of local Haitian organizations. The final report—A Voice for the Voiceless (Youn Vwa Pou Pep La)—became the impetus for the May 1, 2015 symposium, “Voices of Haiti’s Voiceless: Post-Earthquake Aspirations & Achievements.”

To Dr. Maguire, the report was an important example of bottom-up development, taking the needs of Haitians (or any other group in the process of development) into concern when deciding how to allocate development resources. It is based on the belief that individuals know what is best for their own communities, and that development assistance and capital should be provided at that level. As Dr. Maguire explained, bottom-up development “measures in terms of people, not things.” The Haitian peasant class’ restricted access to resources (both land and capital) perpetuated their dependence on elites and led to poverty; therefore, Haitians in the Voiceless surveys, identified a need to shift the distribution and control of resources—where the control is determined by those directly impacted. Maguire also emphasized that physical needs are not the only needs, remarking that respondents repeatedly placed ‘rights’ above ‘needs’ in their list of priorities. As an example, the creole idiom, “analfabèt pa bèt” reflects Haitian belief that illiteracy doesn’t equate to stupidity, and that education—as a proxy for socioeconomic class—should not determine the rights and opportunities available to an individual.

This common response stems from a widespread frustration at the widening gap between the majority of society and the political and economic elite of Haiti. Acute-on-chronic issues—those that had existed before the earthquake but became even more devastating in its aftermath—continue to exacerbate this divide. Major post-quake challenges include: poverty and widespread inequality; lack of opportunity for youth; weak institutions, including (lack of) social security and safety nets; the concentration of resources and development in Port-au-Prince as opposed to the surrounding rural areas; and uneven relations, both amongst Haitians, and between Haitian politicians and international actors.

As a culmination of the surveying and focus groups, the Voiceless report developed five ‘clear messages’ to direct post-earthquake response and development operations. The first point calls for full participation—across ethnic, socioeconomic, gendered, and geographic lines—and an end to exclusion. Secondly, public resources must be decentralized and local management must be intimately involved in decision-making processes. This would be aided by creating job opportunities in rural areas, to prevent necessary economic migration to Port-au-Prince. Investing in people is the third major message from the focus groups; creating jobs, supporting agriculture, and prioritizing schools helps to establish the “legitimate trio” of development, says Maguire.

Involving those affected in development processes a) results in better material conditions, b) allows these individuals to care for themselves and their families, and c) therefore helps all involved attain greater self-fulfillment. The fourth message received from the focus groups was the importance of “responsible aid”; aid that reinforces Haiti’s sovereignty through encouraging agriculture (with both rural and urban participants), roads, and microfinance. Furthermore, the goal is to establish aid patterns driven by Haitians—not foreign aid organizations. The final and most important Haitian demand is that all Haitians be treated with dignity, both by elites within the country and those without. In closing, Dr. Maguire explained that the purpose of the symposium was to evaluate how well these messages had been received by the international aid community, and to provide recommendations for improvement.