Last spring, months before the outbreak of cholera began to spread among Haitians, I had the good fortune to work in Haiti as part of a post-earthquake recovery team, supporting the efforts of the University of Notre Dame to eliminate the disease of elephantiasis and supporting the humanitarian relief work of the American Refugee Committee. The team provided services in four different camps: Fond Parisien, near the Dominican Republic; Old Military Airport, in Port-au-Prince; Corail, an hour outside of Port-au-Prince, where potential flood victims were being relocated; and Terrain Acra, in the Delmas municipality of greater Port-au-Prince.
At one point we arranged a tour of the Terrain Acra camp for the deputy secretary general of the United Nations, Dr. Asha Rose Migiro, and moved on foot from shelter to shelter, speaking with people who had been traumatized by widespread death and destruction. Afterward, in a soccer field, we watched a theatrical performance sponsored by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, an event to promote post-trauma healing through art. Zombie-like actors appeared, their skin covered in whitish-gray, terrifying the children and mesmerizing the audience of displaced camp dwellers.
A Haitian doctor on our team told us that most Haitians who become ill seek the help of a doctor only as a last resort. Going to a shaman is their first step, and returning for a follow-up visit is mandatory, because one is cursed if one does not return. The doctor thought that Haitians spend much more money on voodoo remedies than on modern medicine. A fellow relief worker added that in his opinion, superstition is the single greatest impediment to development in Africa, and that this is also true of Haiti.
Superstition is palpable in Haiti. One day as I traveled to the Old Military Airport camp in Port-au-Prince, a dust storm started up. Dirt and trash swirled on the road like a twister, and the driver abruptly stopped. Though I explained that the wind was harmless, he refused to drive on until the twister moved off the road. Haitians, I learned subsequently, believe that going through twisters brings bad luck.
But is voodoo a major impediment to development in Haiti? On this question I have heard three views.
The first, held by some Christian fundamentalists, is that the earthquake was God’s way of punishing Haiti because of its widespread practice of voodoo. This view fits into “abundance theology,” which holds that God blesses true believers with material wealth. From this viewpoint, ridding Haiti of voodoo is critical to development.
Others maintain that voodoo in Haiti is relatively harmless. In this view, voodoo is monotheistic and can be practiced alongside Christianity. Voodoo is a ritual and a form of religious expression the church has long tried unsuccessfully to stamp out, and continued resistance seems futile. While this view acknowledges a dark side of voodoo, it holds that the dark side is rare. One writer estimates that “black magic” (sticking needles into dolls, for instance, as a way of harming the person of whom the doll is a replica) makes up just 5 percent of voodoo practice in Haiti. So in this view, overcoming the influence of black magic, while laudable in terms of religious education and spiritual growth, is not a major impediment to Haiti’s development.
A third view is that voodoo hinders development by engendering fatalism. If people feel they have no control over their destiny, their willingness to work hard and exercise their human agency is stifled. This view acknowledges the detrimental influence of black magic but does not consider it a major impediment to development.
Based on my brief experiences in Haiti, I find the third view the most accurate, if the influence of fatalism is sufficiently nuanced. I saw ample evidence, for instance, of individuals unstifled by fatalism. When people found opportunities to better their condition, they took them. Camp life showed impressive initiative: families digging terraces into hillsides by hand, pooling money to buy a small gas-powered generator, starting a cellphone-recharging business. Young boys risked the dangers of standing in the streets to wipe off car windows in the hope of a tip; rubble removers worked tirelessly for a pittance; fruit sellers worked into the wee hours of night to eke out a living.
Nor was fatalism influential among small groups. Many committees formed in the camps, like self-appointed camp leaders of women’s groups and bands of cash-for-work labor pools. These groups were very assertive and active.
Fatalism is a factor, however, at the collective, macro level, at what the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the Leviathan. Yet how much of this fatalism is attributable to voodoo remains unclear. Haitians see their government as ineffective and think it probably always will be; that’s their Leviathan. But given Haiti’s history of slavery and colonialism, violence with the Dominican Republic and corrupt, brutal governance, this view is understandable. It would be surprising if fatalism based on experience and history did not exist.
To overcome fatalism, Haitians need to experience what collective action through governance and commerce can accomplish. Therein lies the greatest danger connected with efforts to help by outside groups: that international humanitarian aid will foster dependency instead of creating conditions in which Haitians can exercise their own collective human agency.
Many Haitians told me that three major groups of players could bring about transformative development. Development requires that business elites insist on governmental reform, that politicians work for the common good, and that the church support impartially both the business and the political leaders who work for reform.
Humanitarian aid can empower people without breeding dependency. The methods are already in use by secular and faith-based nongovernmental organizations: form community committees; publicize whatever aid is available; allow committee members to prioritize who gets aid based on need and which projects are most beneficial for everyone. This is Community Development 101.
International governments are intent on using the roughly $9.9 billion of aid pledged for Haiti since the quake to help the devastated nation recover and rebuild its institutions.
The task for international Catholic N.G.O.’s is unique in that such groups embrace spirituality as a means to overcome trauma. Their work goes beyond a code of ethics and human rights and integrates Catholic social teaching within a framework of right relationships and responsibilities. It acknowledges that leadership can and should be taught and pursues programming that supports the church’s positions on justice in both the political and commercial realms. And their work engages in an outsider-insider relationship of solidarity. It supports a Haitian version of socio-political-commercial transformation that identifies those with the ability and disposition to become singly or collectively the symbolic force Cardinal Jaime Sin has been to the Philippines, Bishop Oscar Romero to El Salvador and President Lech Walesa to Poland.
Catholic N.G.O.s can apply to socio-political transformation what the theologian Robert Schreiter, C.P.P.S., says about reconciliation. Schreiter claims that human beings cannot bring about reconciliation, that only God can. The most humans can do is to help create the conditions in which the work of God is more likely. Applying that to the case of Haiti would mean that outsiders could work in solidarity with the church to create these right conditions. In this case reconciliation is not required, but rather the transformation of the Haitian Leviathan.
Catholic international N.G.O.’s have a unique role to play in the effort. They can work in solidarity with the church in Haiti to create a sense of the efficacy of collective action; to engender leadership skills; to cultivate a web of relationships across business, government and church sectors; to bring to bear diplomacy from the outside—with the Holy See, diplomatic missions and the United Nations—that supports transformational leadership; and to embrace Catholic social teaching not as a list of ethical principles but as spiritual guidance. They must go beyond where secular N.G.O.’s operate. As Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” says:
One aspect of the contemporary technological mindset is the tendency to consider the problems and emotions of the interior life from a purely psychological point of view, even to the point of neurological reductionism. In this way…[human] interiority is emptied of its meaning, and gradually our awareness of the human soul’s ontological depths, as probed by the saints, is lost. The question of development is closely bound up with our understanding of the human soul, insofar as we often reduce the self to the psyche and confuse the soul’s health with emotional well-being. These over-simplifications stem from a profound failure to understand the spiritual life, and they obscure the fact that the development of individuals and peoples depends partly on the resolution of problems of a spiritual nature. Development must include not just material growth but also spiritual growth, since the human person is a unity of a ‘unity of body and soul.’ —No. 76, emphases in original
Caritas organizations from France, the United States and Switzerland were at work in Haiti before the recent quake and are still engaged there working toward development. An international Caritas team responding to the earthquake included members from Austria, Germany, Mexico, France and Holland, among others.
As the Haitian population has its basic needs met, Catholic N.G.O.’s can help them work for justice and develop a critical mass of leaders essential to transformational development, which is now a real possibility in Haiti. Caritas confederation members focus simultaneously on basic needs and macro civic infrastructure. Catholic Relief Services, for instance, promotes civic education and leadership development.
With the diplomatic influence of the United States, the substantial amount of international funding pledged worldwide for Haiti, and the leverage of the newly constituted Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (which will control some of the aid pledged over an 18-month period), there is reason to believe that top-down civic infrastructure development is possible.
Caritas confederation members can help with the bottom-up component. But the synergy of top-down and bottom-up action will be lost if Haiti’s leaders operate on a solely secular level. The Haitian political and business elite will have to give up old habits of influence-peddling and profit-making, which will demand sacrifice and risk-taking. The Haitian poor will need faith to trust that a transformed Leviathan will work, and they must refuse to allow corrupt practices to continue but without resorting to mob violence when they face frustration. This is why Caritas confederation members must fully embrace their spiritual mandate at all levels of Haitian society, consistent with the guidance of “Caritas in Veritate.”
Voodoo is only a very small factor in Haitian development. Much more significant is the cultivation of a Catholic spirituality that can prepare the way for transformative development. The church and its international organizations, working together with other societal players, can create the conditions wherein the work of God is more likely. That will help Haiti rise from the rubble.
View a slidehow documenting Haiti's post-earthquake recovery.
Approximately 80 percent of Haiti’s population (of almost 10 million) is Catholic. And the local church exercises influence at every level of Haitian society.
The universal church also plays a large part in Haiti’s development. For example, in the very first month after the earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, international Catholic nongovernmental organizations collected $230 million for Haiti. Fundraising aside, Catholic leaders worldwide can advocate policies in support of Haiti’s development.
In terms of that development, the most important focus for the church is first to help Haitians collectively envision a better future. The second is to rebuild Haiti’s government and commercial sector in solidarity with Catholic social teaching and spirituality, so that the envisioned future gradually becomes real.