By Jennie M. Smith
229 pages
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.
ISBN # 0-8014-37970-0.

Comments of Bob Corbett
October 2002

Many visitors to Haiti encounter levels of poverty, need and material suffering beyond anything they have ever known and are moved to “help.” But what does it mean to “help” Haiti or Haitians? A lot depends upon how one understands the origin and nature of this undeniable need and this misery.

Some understand it as a spiritual need and attempt to bring foreign religions and different life goals to Haiti. Others see it as immediate material need in the face of a hopeless political morass and attempt to provide immediate relief in food, orphanages, medical care, foreign controlled projects to dig wells, run clinics, school and agricultural improvements. Others, less pessimistic about the possibility of Haitians to change their own reality, try to aid Haitian community organizations to advance themselves and their ability to impact both national and local politics as well as improve the material conditions of the local area if not the nation itself.

Many such foreign folks, individuals and organizations alike seem to be sincere and decently motivated. Thus a great deal rests upon the analysis of the Haitian situation in order for them to act rationally and to positively impact the nation. Far too many foreign groups and individuals develop an easy pessimism regarding Haitians. They see a mass of people illiterate and under skilled, kept in misery by an elite class and greedy political leadership and thus arrive at a view that any useful actions rest upon their own foreign shoulders, and they go in to “do good.”

The primary quarrels I have with such views are not concerning the desperate material needs, not even the motivation of most of the outsiders. Rather, I suspect their analyses of the internal situation of Haiti are lacking and flow from an oversimplified and non-historic understanding.

Jennie Smith’s book is an enlightening vehicle in challenging such oversimplified views of Haitian rural communal social structures. It is Smith’s thesis that there is a long history of various communal organizations which have functioned as they could to aid and protect needy members and further, that more recent movements have added an overtly political nature to such community organizations, helping the peasantry in developing more political and legal sensibilities and desires to enter the political arena in their own behalf.

Smith is no utopian. She sees the limits of such groups and knows the resistance and obstacles. Nonetheless, she provides us with a clearer picture of the reality which strongly suggests alternative paths for external sympathetic aid than merely following more traditional paths of basic charity or foreign controlled development.

This review congratulates and celebrates Smith’s field work in revealing the complex existing role or rural community organizations in modern movements toward change, but raises questions about just how hopeful these organizations are or can be in reversing the traditional structures of power, privilege and misery in Haiti.

Jennie Smith lived and worked in the Grand Anse, the tip of the southern peninsula. She was an observer presenting herself as such, and wandered from place to place to see the various form of social organization and discussing them with participants, as well as joining in them herself, albeit primarily as an observer.

She focuses on several aspects of rural social organization beginning with a fascinating recounting of several aspects of the use of music as a vehicle for expressing criticism and discontent – the “chante pwen-s” criticism couched in songs.

There are also detailed analyses of cooperative labor projects, including the well-known “kombit” and “kove.” She shows how “atribisyon” groups are membership clubs organized to share work responsibilities, but also to provide some “insurance” to members for the hard times that come with sickness, injury, death and old age and other especially hard times.

The “sosyete” is another ancient system for providing social protections in a world where government does not do so, thus group membership can provide not only aid, but a sense of unity and identity within the community.

In more recent years, since the 1960s, a new and numerous set of social organizations, the ti legliz and tet ansannm have grown up with the distinct roots in Latin American liberation theology (which surprisingly Smith does not mention) and deep roots connected to the theoretical work of Paulo Freiere (whom she does discuss). There are long sections in which she reports the activities of these groups in the Grand Anse, discussing their strengths and hopes while not neglecting to point out that like virtually all human institutions they don’t quite live up to their utopian ideals.

One of the things I enjoyed most about Smith’s analyses is that when reporting on Haitian rural peasant organizations she did not idealize them but described them as she found them, discussed the formal structure of each form or organization in detail, but recognized and acknowledged in each case where they fell short of the ideal which each did.

I believe it was only in her last chapter that Jennie Smith tended toward a certain utopianism, but his was not in regard to Haitian rural social organizations, but when she shifts to lecture northern-western organizations on their behavior. Here her standards shift and I no longer saw the patient and understanding observer, but the utopian moralist preaching salvation to the evil folks.

Smith calls for a level of change in northern-westerns which are much like saints in the desert calling for sinners to not merely mend their way but become saints themselves. I don’t criticize Smith for such arguments, I often talk that way myself. However, I think we must all face the strong likelihood that the fundamental structure of international relations will remain significantly non-ideal and the structure of community organizations in Haiti will too (Smith seems fully ready to accept this latter).

However, if Smith’s call for near saintly behavior from the international relief and development sector is not likely to be followed, is there any hope at all? Are Haitians (urban and rural masses alike) condemned to more generations of “the misery?”

This observer sees little hope. Smith herself has focused on three sources of negative influences:

  1. The failure of rural social organizations themselves to live up to or even fully understand their own stated ideals.
  2. The failure of the Haitian government to effect the promised revolution (1990) from government in the benefit of the few, toward a government seeking the welfare of all.
  3. Not only the failure of the international community to HELP Haiti, but the growing tendency of the new global market economy to even further marginalize Haiti.

The prospects for hope seem dismal to me. I don’t think Jennie Smith’s book is or can be any magic formula for reversing these negative trends and bringing utopia to Haiti (or even significant improvement). But Smith is in the tradition of serious academics doing their work well and with care. She clears away misconceptions and brings us more into the clearing of what is a fundamental starting point for re-thinking the history, nature and place of rural community organizations in Haiti.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu