This French and Creole speaking Caribbean country that shares an island with the Dominican Republic is known for extreme poverty, violence, political uncertainly and physical disasters likes earthquakes and hurricanes. It held little allure.
But when the US-based NDI (the National Democratic Institute) asked me to go to Haiti to help train newly elected women in Parliament and their staff, I jumped at the chance. If these women, in the face of such steep challenges, could put themselves forward on the ballot and get themselves elected, they deserved all the help they could get.
NDI, founded in 1983, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization that supports democratic institutions and practices around the world. I had undertaken other training and election observation missions in Africa with NDI. They work with local partners to establish and strengthen political and civic organizations, safeguard elections, and promote citizen participation, as well as openness and accountability in government. And yes, I understand something of the history of US involvement in the region, and around the world, but I truly believe that NDI is engaging in constructive, democratic support.
So, Haiti it was. After a few hectic days of preparation, I emerged from Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, and plunged into a crowded, intense, and seemingly chaotic free-for-all. As an obvious foreigner, I was a target for some very creative sales pitches, and a lot of desperate upselling. But as in many warm climates with extreme poverty and high unemployment, so much life happens out in the open: socializing and commerce of course, but also cooking, washing, and even dressing.
Haiti’s challenges are truly daunting. With more than half the population under the age of 24, a 60% illiteracy rate, almost no social safety net, a high level of precarious work, especially by women, and poor maternal care, life for Haitians is very hard.
Yet Haiti has a proud history. Slaves were brought from Africa to work the sugar plantations which were some of the most profitable in the world. Toussaint L’Ouverture led the first successful slave rebellion shortly after the French revolution. Haiti was the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the second republic in the Americas, the only nation in the western hemisphere to have defeated three European superpowers (Britain, France and Spain), and the only nation in the world established because of a successful slave revolt.
Today Haiti has the lowest Human Development Index in the Americas. Successive military coups and brutal dictatorships, the plundering of Haiti’s economy by foreign powers and the terrible earthquake in 2010, have all contributed to today’s challenges.
Enter the women: Ten women ran for the Senate in the latest elections in 2016. For the first time, a woman was elected senator. Mme. Dieudonne Luma, former department director in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, now joins her 29 male colleagues. With a powerful personality, she is clearly a leader. On meeting her, I understood how she could marshal support to win her electoral breakthrough.
Of the six women who ran for MP in the final leg of the last elections in November 2016, three were elected and they join 96 male colleagues. MPs Raymonde Rival, a former MP, lawyer Gladys Lundy and former mayor Mme Guerda Benjamin joined our program along with Senator Luma and their staff.
NDI provided tremendous resources to ensure the success of the program. Led by NDI country director Leo Spans, with an excellent team of Haitian educators, the course was an opportunity for the participants to gain skills but also think about the bigger picture in Haiti – beyond personal political gain.
We led sessions on their role and duties under the constitution, best practices for the staff of the elected women, how to build team solidarity among the staff, how to map out civil society in the riding. political communications, social media, and management of the constituency office. The NDI local team from Haiti were wonderful educators who really engaged the group.
While my Canadian experience reflected a reality that is a far cry from that of Haiti, the exchange was valuable. For example, in the session on social media, I raised the issue of trolls and harassment of women on-line, in a way that the Haitians really hadn’t discussed. Sexist trolls were an unspoken reality. We also had a lively discussion on the use of volunteers – so common here in Canada, but almost absent between elections in Haiti due to the pressures of day-to-day reality.
I don’t think I have illusions about the challenges facing these brave elected women and their staff. I can truly say they all impressed me as women who care about the people they represent, but they and their staff teams face daunting odds. Yet NDI is making progress. I’m not sure any of these women would have been elected if not for NDI training. Progress is made step by step, person by person.
With people as proud and determined as Haitians, you’d like to believe that a better world is possible and that these women and their teams will be part of building it. That at least is the plan.