On the second seamlessly dark night after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, I was lying against the unusually cold earth, and for the first time since that initial tremble, sleeping. Once packed into precarious dwellings of watery cement and leftover tin, the more than two million residents of Port-au-Prince found themselves living in the few spaces opened up between fallen and falling structures. A hundred neighbors and I sought rest in an open lot that on most days served as a car lot and auto-body shop. Located on the corner of a small side street and “Bois Verna,” one of the long, central avenues leading up from the central square of Champs Mars, this lot was one of the better places to take refuge. A bit farther up the hill, this street was home to several middle-class residents, who shared with us the provisions they had been keeping for those bouts of civil unrest (like the protest which claimed the life of a “conservative” professor that Tuesday morning), which tended to keep people indoors. I was huddled with a now fatherless mother, Françoise, and her husband, daughter, and two nephews under a thin bed-sheet, comforted both by the songs of faith and the jeering of those who preferred silence to the singing.
Jolting me from sleep, Françoise tugged the dusty backpack holding the last of my belongings from under my head and told me we had to run. There was a tsunami coming, and we had to go higher. We hurried up Bois Verna, trying to pull the kids along, while tripping over our bags and bedding. As we reached the end of the road, we heard a mass of people approaching us, claiming another flood was heading down the mountains. We paused, apparently sandwiched between a tsunami and a flood. Having nowhere to go, everyone just stopped in the middle of the crossroads. Here, at this intersection — where not a single siren could be heard, where the only lights shone from the screens of cell phones — a young man’s voice began to blurt out from a megaphone. He called for us to stay calm and to go back to…well, where we had come from. He identified himself as a member of the Organization of Young People for the Development of Bois Verna and then later as a community police officer. He was certain that the dusty dryness meant no tsunami. With no other visible authority, we listened and returned to the car lot.
For the past two years, I have been researching the ways in which these forms of youth-based social organizations pair up with longstanding performance groups, known as “foot bands” (bann a pye), in order to construct an authority to govern in an emerging democracy wrought by extensive international intervention and weak state capacity: “We make the state”, as they say. Like the man with the megaphone leading us back to the shelter of huddles and song, Organization to Restore Bel Air (ORB), another youth organization headquartered closer to the site of my fieldwork, was also engaged in acts of policing and assistance, working to share with the homeless the meager supplies stored in a community restaurant and nearby warehouse. After I was evacuated to New York, they called me to fundraise on their behalf. They said they were unable to purchase the staples — such as, spaghetti and ketchup — to keep the Bel Air kitchen operating. They told me that aid was not being distributed in the area, but only to the masses at Champs Mars, and that they were overwhelmed by the demand. They stressed their attempts to fill the void left by the state, epitomized by their view from Bel Air’s hilltop setting of the gutted National Palace below. One week after the quake, Bernard, the group’s president, told me, “We don’t have security. We don’t have food or water. There is no government, no state, no NGOs. We only see their ashes. We are making the state for us.”
While much news and political commentary following the earthquake has focused on the palpable limitations of the Haitian state, few have carefully considered what the phrase “weak state” might even mean. I do take issue with the presumption of some form of assessment by which states might be placed on a scale of relative weakness. Yet I want to focus here on how this inadequate characterization is complicated by the divergent meanings of the word “state” that occur in various social settings. Consider the different meanings of the term which surface when we compare the perspective of international news correspondents with that of Haitians engaged in grassroots political organizing, like Bernard. Whereas foreign commentary tends to posit the state as a decidedly national and hierarchical entity that has “failed” the people it serves, the politically engaged (angaje) residents of Bel Air tend to posit the state as something to be done; that is, the actual execution of a set of particular acts — namely, the making of order and the provisioning of services. As an idea accomplished by acts of governance, the state that emerges in Haiti is essentially constituted by a continuum of structures that range from the extensive NGO and UN network to the national ministries. Take, for example access to water in Bel Air. Viva Rio, a Brazilian NGO who collaborates with MINUSTAH — the (also Brazilian-led) UN stabilization mission — to execute neighborhood security and development initiatives, financially and materially supports the state water-distribution agency, Central Autonome Métropolitaine d’Eau Portable. This agency’s administration of water at public fountains is then delegated to select community organizations whose local authority is seen as both a threat and an asset to the foreign-generated project.
For the residents of Bel Air, the idea of the state as a governing structure necessarily includes the work of such community organizations. Bel Air alone is home to over one hundred community organizations — more than half of them are registered with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Together, they reflect the history of socio-political organizations, known as Popular Organizations, which were central to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s vast base of support. They have strategically evolved in recent times, becoming more skilled at managing national and international agents in order to solicit funds and resources for neighborhood initiatives. This is exemplified by ORB’s dual effort to solicit funds for its performances from the Ministry of Culture and Communication, while securing financing for its social projects from various NGOs and national ministries and offices (including the Presidential Palace and Prime Ministry). Performing an intermediate level of citizenship by brokering between the state and the “public”, these organizations constitute a civil society that refuses a subordinate status to the state. Rather, this sphere is made up of social actors who contribute to defining a social contract that realizes and signifies the fragmented power of the state and its relation to the populace.
The legacy of state failure in Haiti made salient by the recent calamity results from the inability of governance structures to establish a certain sovereign power and clear parameters for how the Haitian people relate to this power. Both the consequence and the challenge of the concerted, yet disjointed Haitian civil society, this inability impedes performances of governance from effectively positing the state as national or hierarchical. Without dismissing the role or responsibility of national structures, I urge those of us committed to rebuilding a stronger political society in Haiti to heed the workings of these civic organizations when attempting to discern which state is failing, how it operates, and how it can be improved. Let us start by listening to the megaphones.
Chelsey Kivland is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, who was living and conducting her dissertation research in Port-au-Prince.