This article describes longitudinal ethnographic research conducted between 1985 and 2010 in contiguous rural hamlets—pseudonymously, Manioc Hill—in the commune of Fond-des-Blancs in southern Haiti. I focus on three interrelated critiques of Manioc Hill residents about three faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) established during the 1980s to deliver education and health services, and critiques directed at those member of the Haitian diaspora returning to Manioc Hill during my research period.
The critiques are related to the following three cultural changes: the transition from a horticultural economy to a cash-based economy, a new cultural emphasis on a transnational perspective, and the growing local authority of NGOs.
The transition to a cash-based economy occurred over 25 years. In 1985, over 80 percent of Morne Manioc households primarily earned a living as subsistence farmers. Goats, charcoal, cattle, coffee, sisal, and sorghum were produced. About 50 percent of Morne Manioc gardens were hillside gardens. By 2010, fewer than 33 percent of households primarily subsisted through their gardens. Instead, a majority of households had become reliant on intermittent wages and remittances from relatives abroad—wages earned from skilled and unskilled employment with NGOs and for diaspora Haitians and their contractors.
Not everyone directly benefits from the expansion of a cash economy. For example, benefits do not extend to residents who regularly sell their labor or gain access to land through sharecropping. Sharecropping negotiations in this part of Haiti are rarely in strict monetary terms. Likewise, selling one’s labor is never wholly an economic transaction quantified with cash. Sharecropping and labor arrangements start from an understanding of mutual honor and respect. The understanding is often beyond the purview of NGO expatriates. Residents criticize the diaspora as forgetting the importance of honor and respect.
A second cultural change is the growing familiarity of a transnational perspective, expanding one’s worldview across international boundaries. Residents often spoke of emigration as a way of procuring a livelihood since the 1920s. Local elders, those who were in their eighties in 1985, related their labor migration to Cuba to cut sugar cane.
While recalling Fond-des-Blancs’ history, elders emphasized the arrival of a Haitian Roman Catholic priest in the late 1950s who encouraged those who could to emigrate (such as those who could be targeted by Duvalierist machinations). The returning diaspora Haitians referred to here left Fond-des-Blancs after the rise of Francois Duvalier. A survey conducted at the beginning of the research period in 1985 found 62 percent of all households with family members living abroad.
The transnational perspective emerged within the context of relationships residents had with both NGO expatriates and returning diaspora Haitians. NGOs encouraged learning and using English. NGO supervisors noted that learning English improved residents’ prospects within the organization. Some faith-based NGO expatriates believed learning English removed Haitian employees as far as possible from what they viewed as an inferior culture speaking an inferior language. These expatriates not only devalued Haitian Kreole but also criticized traditional beliefs, practices, and rituals related to serving ancestral spirits.
Diaspora Haitians returned to build new homes for their summer vacations and to relocate to for their retirement. This process accelerated dramatically after the fall of the Duvalier regime in 1986. Diaspora Haitians modeled the successes, obtainable jobs abroad, and North American values, thereby cultivating a transnational perspective. For example, diaspora Haitians preferred rice over the traditional staple, sorghum grain; brand-name rum over traditional raw rum; and American hip-hop over traditional Haitian konpa music. It was common in 1985 to hear residents express their reluctance to even travel to Port-au-Prince. By 2005, it was rare to find someone who did not think it was an excellent idea to emigrate abroad.
As a transnational perspective grew in popularity, a counter-narrative emerged among Manioc Hill young adults who called themselves the Rebel Army. They posted a graffiti display during the summer of 2005 that read, “We respect everyone; we fear no one. Disorderly persons will be brought to the attention of the Rebel Army.” According to the Rebel Army, the graffiti was a response to public discourse that questioned traditional values. The graffiti also highlighted the ever-present potential for vigilantism, a fear often expressed by expatriates and diaspora Haitians.
A third impact has been the growing local authority of the NGOs. Residents say Haiti’s 1996 Collectivities Territoriales law empowered communal governments (communes being equivalent to US counties) at the expense of municipal governments. Residents say that moving municipal authority to the communal center allowed NGOs to fill the void of a local authority.
During the 1980s, NGOs benefited from collaborating with the Fond-des-Blancs municipal council. At that time, the council mobilized community labor and corvée labor, where residents helped with NGO projects in place of paying taxes. Without this help, it would have been costly for NGOs to succeed. Municipal council initiatives, however, were rendered ineffectual upon the enactment of the Collectivities Territoriales. The council lost it authority to collect taxes and approve NGO projects to the communal administrative center, easily a three-hour drive to the west. As witnessed in 2010, communal authorities showed scant presence in Fond-des-Blancs other than to provide a justice of the peace once or twice a month. With the much-weakened council, NGOs operated without having to collaborate with community leaders. From the resident’s perspective, NGOs moved forward with their projects with no sense of coordination with each other. Local leaders criticized the way NGOs proceeded without community input, saying they were “pissing everywhere without making foam.”
In 2010, a cadre of community leaders petitioned the Haitian Ministry of Interior and Territorial Communities to be upgraded from a municipality to a commune. Their goal was to regain the local control they enjoyed before the Collectivities Territoriales. This petition was approved on October 23, 2015, creating the Commune de Fond-de-Blancs in the Arrondissement d’Aquin. What I cannot report is the level of local control that may or may not have returned to the new Commune.
This piece was originally presented as a longer paper, “Pise gaye pa fè kim: NGOs, Diaspora and Abitan Response to Cultural Changes in Fond-des-Blancs, Southern Haiti” at the 31st Annual Haitian Studies Association Conference in Gainesville, Florida on October 17, 2019.
Anthony Balzano is a professor of anthropology and sociology at Sussex County Community College. He completed his dissertation, “Tree-Planting in Haiti: Agroforestry and Rural Development in a Local Context,” at Rutgers University in 1989. He maintains an active research program in the Fond-des-Blancs Valley and among its émigrés. [email protected]
Cite as: Balzano, Anthony. 2020. “NGOs, Diaspora, and Local Critique in Southern Haiti.” Anthropology News website, March 13, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1371