Playing “$1 Dollar Poverty” in Haiti
Last week, a billboard went up on I-95 in Miami. As part of a re-branding effort by the Haitian Ministry of Tourism, it shows a pristine beach sandwiched between lush forest on one side and blue sea on the other. Its message: “Haiti: Live the Experience.”
In May 2010, four young Americans decided to live a different Haitian experience. In a recent YouTube short documentary, the college students and twenty-somethings say they new nothing about the country until seeing images of earthquake damage on CNN and from other news outlets after the January 2010 disaster. The 28-minute video, “1 Dollar Poverty,” recounts their experience.
“After seeing the destruction,” says Matt Jones, one of the four filmmakers, “I called my younger brother Andrew, who has always wanted to make a difference in the world, and we decided to act.” Their endeavor: visit Haiti and live on $1.00 a day for 28 days. “In order to understand the plight of the Haitian people,” viewers learn, “we decided to live like the Haitian people—on one U.S. dollar a day.”
The brothers recruit two friends to join them, and early in the video, we see the four of them in Pennsylvania, pre-trip, shaving their heads. Apparently sporting normal-length hair in Port-au-Prince would be too much of a tribulation. They outline six bizarre self-imposed rules—among them, no toiletries, only two sets of clothes, live in a tent. Haitians’ knack for dressing well and habit of taking pride in appearance—a Haitian friend has on more than one occasion reminded me that, days after the earthquake, even if locals no longer had a standing house, you can bet that they had a crisply-pressed shirt to walk the streets in—renders the rules absurd. One of the four states into the camera: “What am I most scared of? Not coming back.”
It’s yet another unremarkable and stereotypical view about what westerners will find in Haiti. The 28 minutes are chock-full of references to “the Haitians” or “the Haitian people,” as if the locals encountered during the Americans’ brief experience in downtown Port-au-Prince is representative of the entire nation, or as if there even exists a representative Haitian.
In Le Nouvelliste, French journalist Amelie Baron called the stunt “well-meaning but stupid,” “egocentric,” and “insulting.”
“A trip to the market makes them realize that with their dollar a day,” Baron writes, “they will eat only two meals a day. And only rice, beans, spaghetti … it’s hard to pretend to be poor!” She also notes that, clearly, “[t]he victims of the earthquake cannot fold their tents after 28 days and go back to sleep in a comfortable bed with fresh linens.”
“Haiti isn’t a laboratory for foreigners in search of exoticism, who feel trapped in a daily life too easy for them,” she concludes.
It’s no doubt that the four Americans have good intentions, and they come across as undeniably sincere, which makes it all the more difficult to watch. But despite their meaning well, in the vein and vain of all self-important and -congratulatory documentary films, “$1 Dollar Poverty” features its makers first and foremost. They are the story; Haiti and “the Haitians” come second. It’s no surprise that viewers will learn little to nothing about life in the country.
Patronizing narration and somber music play throughout most of the video. Two of the participants volunteer for “the difficult task of carrying over 40 pounds of water through the hot, crowded streets of Port-au-Prince”—a five-gallon Culligan bottle that 10-year-olds routinely carry—and the camera cuts to them beginning their Sisyphean task as a Switchfoot track rises in volume.
For all their effort, the four uncover that “lack of money, jobs, and infrastructure” were and are the crux of Haiti’s problems, not the earthquake.
The documentary reportedly drew inspiration from a likely source: Invisible Children. The nonprofit organization is known for advocating against child soldiering in Uganda, speaking on university campuses across the U.S., and their viral “KONY 2012” video from March 2012, a misguided and naive piece of propaganda that excited U.S. college students for two weeks last spring.
“The goal of the trip,” according to the “$1 Dollar Poverty” website, “was to network with humanitarians that were equipped to help Haitians and to educate Americans about poverty. ” It notes that “powerful lessons were learned and great connections were made with local individuals and organizations”—two passive constructs deserving of disapproval from aid critics and Orwell alike. As a friend of mine put it, the video may succeed in “opening the eyes” of the 12-16-year-old cohort, although it’s not clear to what end.
The four Americans have spoken at some U.S. schools since their return and started three projects in Haiti: construction of a school, support for an orphanage, and the launch of sustainable business projects. But whatever good these projects may do, they didn’t hinge upon the making of the video happening first—the zillions of similar projects in Haiti led by foreigners are testament to that. Moreover, the video’s stereotypical, superficial, and wrong-headed message might do more damage to Haiti’s image than the projects do good.
In a recent interview with Guernica, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Katherine Boo talked about her time researching her first book in the Annawadi slum of Mumbai. She was asked whether it was important to stay in the vicinity of the slum community:
Quite the contrary. It was important to me, in the course of my reporting in Annawadi, day after day, night after night, to leave and get a sense of the city as a whole. …
Even if I were to stay in Annawadi or something like it, it wouldn’t be the same. … This whole thing of, “I’m walking a mile in their shoes by living this certain way.” Well, I’m not living that way. I can turn around and leave. We can do the best we can to get to the core of people’s circumstances, but it’s ludicrous to think that my being in Annawadi all of that time is walking in their shoes. It’s not.
“With your help,” the “$1 Dollar Poverty” filmmakers conclude, “we, together, can change our world.”
One thing they’re unlikely to change: western perceptions of what it’s like to “live the experience” of Haiti.
Photo by me