By Sally Ann Flecker, Carnegie Mellon Today, July 2011
Andress Appolon can make the claim that she is as much Haitian as she is American. Born and raised in Kew Gardens—long a melting-pot community of Queens, N.Y.—she was still very much a part of her extended family living in Haiti. Sure, during the school year, as soon as she stepped inside the classroom, she spoke perfect English, participated in American culture, and learned about American history. But at home, she heard and spoke only French.
Appolon's Haitian-born mother, who also spoke English fluently, wanted her daughter to have intimate knowledge of the spirited culture and physical beauty of her homeland. So every June the young schoolgirl ended up at the front door of her aunts, uncles, and cousins—leaving behind her urban life for summers in the lush, green mountains of the Caribbean country.
During those summers, there never failed to be one ongoing conversation. "In Haiti we call it 'living room politics' because people are always setting up a national plan in their living room," says Appolon. At the time, she admits it was extremely boring for the youngsters, but the vibrant exchanges resonated with her more than she ever realized. "I think my interest in politics and foreign policy was probably born in evenings when my aunts and uncles and parents were in heated discussion about the direction of the country, the involvement of the United States, and the geopolitics of the region."
Back home in New York, Appolon never felt like an outsider: "I grew up among a lot of first-generation Americans from various places—Europe, India, China, Korea, Japan." Still, she believes there is a difference between the Haitian American immigrant story and that of other populations: "The Haitian diaspora, maybe because of the proximity of Haiti to the United States, but also because of some fundamental aspects of Haitian culture, is very tied to going back. There's a symbiotic relationship, a constant feeding back and forth between the diaspora community and the community on the mainland."
Every morning there are several flights out of New York, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale to Haiti's capital, Port au Prince. They're not filled with tourists or spring-break vacationers, Appolon says: "It's all Haitian Americans. In three hours, you can be home. I'm 30 years old, and there has yet to be a stable period in Haiti politically since I've been alive. My generation and the generation after me have grown up in absolute instability and volatility. But I always hear adults in the generation before me say, If things get better, I want to go back. I think if you grow up hearing that all the time, it has that nostalgic pull. That's not where I want to raise my family, but that's where I'll want to end my days."
Recently, she brought some prospective benefactors to Haiti on one of her frequent trips there. Her guests were stunned by the level of poverty and the number of people living in the streets. "I've never seen anything like this," each said to her over and over. "This is awful." Appolon, however, told them to look more closely. She pointed out a woman who was walking her two children to school. The children's uniforms were crisply creased, their socks dazzling white, and their shoes just shined. "These are people with a tremendous amount of self-respect and integrity, who have been neglected by their government, neglected by the institutions that are supposed to protect them," Appolon says. "And yet, every day, they rise above it."
And that, Appolon believes, is the crux of the problem for Haiti, especially since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake two years ago. As she sees it, the very resilience of the people—the ability to make do with what they have—works against them getting the things they should have, such as running water, safe housing, and an educational system for all children, not just the ones who can afford the uniforms and books. Negligence in providing basic infrastructural necessities was a profound failure of the Haitian government for decades before the earthquake, she says: "January 12, 2010, was the physical manifestation of the collapsed and crumbling system that was already in Haiti on January 11, 2010."
She was well aware of the standard of living in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. Six years earlier, she was on the ground in Port au Prince, working for USAID (US Agency for International Development) and putting her 2002 Carnegie Mellon degree in international relations to work. As the small- and medium-enterprise director, she managed a $16 million microfinance program and got to see the state of affairs close up. "There has been a tremendous neglect of investing in the population by the Haitian government," she says. "I haven't seen a true respect for the Haitian population that could be demonstrated by an investment in their advancement. That has not happened in my lifetime. I hold the Haitian government responsible for that failure." She believes that a compounding consequence of the failure of the Haitian government is an international aid system that has been allowed to operate anarchically and unchecked in the country.
Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, has been called the "Republic of NGOs" by the United States Institute of Peace. NGOs are nongovernmental organizations formed to provide assistance to needy, less-developed countries; Haiti had the dubious distinction of having the most NGOs per capita. Before the earthquake, there were 3,000 NGOs operating without any coordination and little input from Haitians themselves. Earthquake relief brought a further avalanche of NGOs. There is such little accountability that it's hard to even estimate how many are in the country now, though some sources suggest a range of 10,000 to 20,000—or one NGO to every 500 to 1,000 people.
Appolon commends the foreign governments and individuals who came to the rescue to help Haiti in the wake of the earthquake. Still, as she wrote in an op-ed piece in The Christian Science Monitor last November: Foreign aid is reinforcing a tyranny of low expectations in the Haitian people. There is a fine line, it turns out, between resiliency and complacency. Foreign aid is engendering the latter in simultaneously proud yet perpetually disappointed Haitians.
On top of that, she is concerned about what she calls a free-for-all environment for aid and development. "There are no rules of operation in the country," she says. "I know firsthand of many individuals who arrived in Haiti to volunteer post-earthquake, decided they wanted to stay, and started an NGO. There is no clearinghouse for starting an NGO. No one asking, What are you going to do? Where are you operating? Who are you employing? Are you advancing some type of national development program?" For instance, she explains, maybe an NGO running a tuberculosis program isn't needed as much as one tackling malaria prevention. But without a national health development plan that looks at existing needs and already available resources, there's no one to say what will best meet the needs of the people and help the country to be self-sustaining.
Appolon remembers encountering NGOs that bragged about running for 30 years. "It was always seen as such a positive thing," she says. "But I thought, well, that's a complete failure. I wasn't seeing the advancement. I wasn't seeing the graduation of steps to eventually empowering and equipping these communities to do for themselves. If you're running something in another country for them for 30 years, there's something that's not right."
Appolon took the road less traveled at Carnegie Mellon when she created her own interdisciplinary major in drama and international relations. An interdisciplinary degree is different from a double major in that a student is continually looking at one discipline from the perspective of the other. "It was a great exercise to embody a character and have to understand the social, political, and historical factors that were informing a character in a Chekhov play, say. And then go to a history class and study the proletarian movement in Russia and be able to synergize those two aspects," says Appolon, who continues her association with Carnegie Mellon as the youngest member of the board of trustees. "You have a very macro focus when you're looking at geopolitics and international relations and a very personal focus when you're dissecting the play Three Sisters and what's happening in a household in Russia in a certain period of time. Or you look at international relations and the impact of decisions and policies and then push yourself to imagine how that might impact someone's life on a daily basis, to understand what it means to live without running water and sanitation. Maybe you're not experiencing it, and you couldn't possibly know, but that's what you go to drama school to do. I may not have this exact experience, but how can I, through technique and research and the like, start to form more of a three-dimensional perspective?" In a way, it's what Appolon has done since childhood—translated one world to the other.
And that's continued into her professional life; she's a vice president at a Wall Street firm where she focuses on creating private-public partnerships for initiating and sustaining economic growth in financially distressed areas. Outside of her work at Siebert Brandford Shank, she helped start six years ago a Haitian elementary school and orphanage near Port au Prince, close to where her extended family has a beach house. (In that beach house, the Appolon family housed teams of medical professionals who provided care after the earthquake.)
The school is popular. It started with 25 students and now accommodates 150. Appolon explains why: "It's in a community that is between two bigger towns. There had been no school there before, so in order for families to send their children to school, they would have to have enough money to pay for them to take a mini-bus, give them money for food, and pay school fees. Not many families could afford that."
For the most part, the school is funded by local money and Appolon's continuing support. "We are really reinforcing the capabilities of this community. It's completely run by teachers that are in the community. The principal and director went to school in Haiti at the State University and came back to the village to start this school," she says. "It was also important that we identify Haitians who live here and have the means to sponsor a child to go to this school," she says.
She notes that involvement by Haitians goes beyond sponsorships. "We did things like going to a ceramic and tile factory and told them we are building a school and maybe you can donate all of the tiles, or maybe you can donate the tin roof. That is how we built the school."
Recently, the school graduated its first full cohort, with all of the students passing the primary exam that allows them to continue on to secondary school.
When prospective benefactors, like the ones awestruck by the poverty, ask Appolon where to donate money, she points them to Haitian-run organizations that primarily employ Haitians, driving home the self-sustaining strategy. If, she says, anything good is to come from the earthquake, it has to be the long-term advancement of the Haitian people:
"If $10 million is given to an organization to run a cholera-prevention program, whatever money is set aside for administering and rolling out that program, for every foreigner that is running that job, there needs to be a Haitian trained to take over. That kind of knowledge needs to be housed in the Haitian people. Certainly, it was the world's moral obligation to come to Haiti's aid immediately after the earthquake, but the long-term aftermath shouldn't be job creation for foreigners. We need to break the cycle of dependency for the people of Haiti."
It's her version of living room politics that's difficult to dispute.