Haiti News Start-Up Challenges Conventional Reconstruction Wisdom

BY Megan Tady

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What if 'cash for work' programs are actually bad for Haiti? No one has been asking—except Haiti Grassroots Watch.

January’s devastating earthquake flooded Haiti with millions of dollars in foreign aid and hundreds of journalists from around the world. Ten months later, most of the reporters have left the country, but the donated money remains–and local groups are wondering how it’s being spent.

Although the Haitian earthquake made the top headlines for weeks in the United States, the disaster-chasing media has been less excited about the clean-up efforts, or holding the approximately 10,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) overrunning the country–and the government–accountable for the quality of the reconstruction.

Rather than relying on parachuting American reporters or the nation’s own mainstream media, they’ve launched a crowd-sourced, investigative reporting project to uncover whether aid is actually helping people: Haiti Grassroots Watch.

Called Ayiti Kale Je–“Haiti Eyes Peeled” in Haitian Creole–the organization is a watchdog partnership telling the ignored stories of Haiti’s reconstruction. The partnership includes Groupe Medialternatif/Alterpresse, the Society for the Animation of Social Communication (SAKS), REFRAKA (a Creole acronym for Women’s Community Radio Network) and the Association of Haitian Community Media.

The project is innovative and courageous. It ought to teach U.S. media what a real “follow-up” story looks like and teach community media projects here how to build a news organization from the rubble–literally. Haiti Grassroots Watch has produced two investigative reports so far. Using text, audio and video content in Haitian Creole, French, English, and Spanish, the group is hoping to break through the normal rhetoric about the reconstruction–that’s it’s working, even as cholera spreads across displacement camps.

The group’s last report focused on international aid programs in Haiti that pay people $5 a day to help with the earthquake recovery work. Called “cash for work,” the programs employ unskilled and displaced workers to clear rubble and repair damaged roads and drainage canals. NGOs maintain that putting cash in people’s pockets will help jumpstart the local economy. The programs have been applauded across the world and lauded in the mainstream press.

But what if “cash for work” programs are bad for Haiti and actually steer the economy in the wrong direction? No one has been asking–except Haiti Grassroots Watch. By actually digging a little deeper, traveling outside the capital and talking with both academics and workers, the group found that “cash for work” may contribute to the country’s dependence on foreign food, undermines the concept of “work,” leads to political corruption and continues to prop up an NGO-led government. Watch the video:

While academics and journalists try long experiments with “new media models,” people in Haiti are simply making it happen, and quickly. This is what local public-interest driven media looks like. Haiti Grassroots Watch is operating on a shoestring budget. It’s currently supported by International Media Support, a Danish media support group, and by Americans donating through Somerville Community Access Television, although it hopes to become more self-sustainable.

“We need media that covers more than the big events,” Gotson Pierre, director of AlterPresse in Haiti, says in this video. “We need media that will explore the issues more deeply, look at what is happening inside the camps and paint that reality – not like a spectacle, but the real situation that people are living in.”

American filmmaker and journalist Jane Regan, who has long reported on Haiti and moved to the country to help with the project, says Haiti Grassroots Watch gives a voice to the people traditionally ignored by reporters who hop to the island for a weekend. “Visiting reporters are just that–they’re visiting,” Regan said. “They’re only there for three days, they usually have to speak through an interpreter, so a lot of the times they end up interviewing the same people who speak English.”

And foreign reporters bring their worldview – which is usually American-centric. “The Washington Post and the New York Times do excellent reporting jobs,” Regan says. “But those usually stay within the limits of, or take the assumption that our society here in the United States is the way to go, and that our economic system and our version of capitalism is what’s best for the planet, and it’s a wonderful society to emulate.”

Tired of this dichotomy, Haiti Grassroots Watch creates and delivers news that reflects what Haitians want their country’s future to be. As Pierre says:

That is why we think media like ours can… make sure that this reconstruction leads to the kind of society we all dream about: A just society, one that includes people, that doesn’t exclude; a society that takes into account the needs of the human being. A society that addresses the needs of the victims – not just of the recent earthquake, but also of the invisible earthquake our society has been living through for dozens of years. So they can re-construct themselves too. We are working for a ‘human re-construction.’

Small and scrappy, journalism at its finest is happening in Haiti. While we work on rebuilding American journalism, we should be taking notes from Haitians as they try to rebuild their country.

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Megan Tady is a blogger and video producer for Free Press, the national nonprofit media reform organization. She writes a monthly InTheseTimes.com column on media issues. Follow her on Twitter: @MegTady.

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