Thoughts on 1 Dollar Poverty

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about this statistic that over 60% of Haitians live on less than $1 a day, and how misleading that figure is in describing the way that Haitians live.  Well since then I’ve learned about a group of young American men who want to help Haiti and not only site this statistic when giving background on Haiti, but they’ve built their entire movement upon the statistic.  They’ve founded an organization, produced a short documentary, and began an awareness campaign because of this statistic.  You can view the YouTube video here.  But go read my recent post first if you haven’t yet.  I share their video with hesitation because I hate to play a role in even perpetrating the narrow perspective that they encourage.  After learning about Haiti and seeing the images after the earthquake, the filmmakers decided to “live like the Haitian people, on 1 US dollar a day.”  The four young men spend 28 days living in a tent in Port-au-Prince following 6 absurd self imposed rules that any Haitian would laugh at such as “no toiletries” and “only two sets of clothing”.  The result is a cliche, highly inaccurate look at poverty that paints the American young men as heroes for their sacrifice.

Anyone who doesn’t like the things I write in my blog, will probably love this video.  Haitians, however, seem to hate it just about as much as I do.  I learned about the video through a blog by Tate Watkins who talked to several Haitians who had watched the video and criticized it pretty harshly, calling it “well-meaning but stupid,” “egocentric,” and “insulting.”  Tate wrote a really good review of the video on his blog, and I don’t need to repeat what he said, but you can read his post here.

I do want to point out a few specific things from the video that particularly struck me as going against everything that I know about Haitians.  First off, with no toiletries they remark multiple times in the video how disgusting they felt, the insinuation being that Haitians must feel like that everyday.  They noted how crappy they smelt, and how nasty their teeth were with a think film on them.  Every Haitian that I know bathes at least once a day with soap and puts on deodorant and cologne or perfume afterwords.  They take smelling good very seriously.  My roommates, for example, in Haiti, during certain times of the year when they are working in the fields in the morning, going to school or work during the day, and playing soccer in the evening, will bathe at least 3 times a day.  This also means wearing at least 3 or 4 different sets of clothing each day, each set (except for the field work clothes) being clean, fashionable, and well fitting.  Which proves how silly the American’s in this video 2 sets of clothing rule is.  Which, if you watch the video, you’ll also notice that the guys hardly ever even wear their shirts during the span of the entire 28-minute video.  Even though they are always in the middle of a large group of Haitians who are always clothed head to toe, they think that living in 1 dollar poverty means that they don’t have to wear shirts.  Do they really not notice that they are the only ones without their shirts on?  At the end of the video they use their shirtlessness as a way to show how much weight they each lost in 28 days.  There’s no Haitian that I know that would ever let a guest in their country lose that much weight that quickly.  Of course, since these guys had a rule not to accept any free food, they just became the martyrs in the story.  As I watched the video I could imagine what the Haitians were saying about them, because I’ve heard what they’ve said to other Americans with similar attitudes.  And that made me smile.  If nothing else these guys gave the Haitians in their neighborhood a lot of good jokes to tell to each other.

Once they returned to the US, these four young men established an organization which has done some seemingly good projects in Haiti like build a school and support an orphanage, but it begs me to ask the question, “Why do we feel like we have to misrepresent the reality of poverty in order to improve it?”  Just as much good can be done, and I’d argue far more, by being authentic to the way that Haitians view themselves.  When the awareness is born out of a local perspective, the scope of the intended aid can be multiplied by maintaining the dignity of those involved.

With all of that being said, on a slightly different note, but same subject, I have a few more photos that I want to share.  After writing that last post on the people who live on less than a dollar a day, then living here in this land obsessed with our pop culture, I decided to modify my photos of Haitians a little.  So here are three new images for your enjoyment:

 

 

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4 comments

  1. I agree with you. BUT…bless them for trying. You’ve had the honor to live with Haitians long enough to know how silly this video is. Some people just don’t know better. So the question I am left with is….what are people suppose to do when they don’t know any better? Nothing? Maybe everyone needs to read The Green Mango before going. Is Port a Prince and Mizak the same? Can you compare the 2? Just a question I am honestly wondering.
    Loved the Pictures…

    1. Anne, yes, bless them. I can’t fault them for having good intentions, but that’s not enough. What I wish them (and others like them) would do is just do their homework before deciding to start any widespread awareness campaigns or building organizations. Ask Haitian opinions before publishing such things or at least live there longer than 28 days! I think it’s silly for anyone to believe they can possibly build an organization intended to represent a particular demographic without speaking the language of that demographic. Did it seriously never dawn on any of these guys that maybe a Haitian could tell them what it’s like to live in Haiti without going through this contrived social experiment that resulted in faulty conclusions? Or that at least, once they decided to start an NGO that maybe it’d be most effective if the direction was established by Haitians? If during 28 days you can’t realize that none of the Haitians around you are at least wearing shirts, let alone smell decent, but you continue pushing your preconceived interpretations of poverty, then you’re probably not qualified to lead an organization. And no, PAP and Mizak are definitely not the same. A lot of realities that I’m used to cannot be applied to life in the tent cities in PAP, which is why I also shared that other article with perceptions directly from Haitians who had seen the video. Even the poorest people in the tent cities in PAP still find a way to brush their teeth and put on a decent looking outfit everyday. And it’s not accurate to assume that they don’t accept any free food, because most people in Haiti eat in large groups with extended family or neighbors, so even if they individually don’t have $1 a day to live on, they are able to find enough to eat usually. I want to encourage people to continue wanting to do “good” in Haiti, but we have to stop assuming that just because we’re white, American, educated, whatever, that our pitied interpretations are accurate. I’m going to stop before I write a whole nother post. Thanks for your comments

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