Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti (about IOM)

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image By Leonard Doyle

AMY WILENTZ is an outstanding writer who has devoted her career to describing the travails of Haiti, most famously in “The Rainy Season” in 1989. Its flattering therefore, that her new book: Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti,has an entire section devoted to IOM.

The book has been widely and favorably reviewed by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Toronto Star, among others. She calls the chapter on IOM  “Citizen Haiti” and in it describes the organizations work depopulating the camps that grew up immediately after the January 2010 earthquake. The chapter also focuses in some detail the multi-layered communications tools which it employed to head off rumors and ensure that those living in camps - 1.5 million at the peak - were properly informed about the humanitarian aid that was to be delivered. 

To get its messages out, IOM used a local dance troupe that “does funny and charming dances in a sort of hip-hop parade to show kids how to avoid getting cholera” she writes. IOM also launched “a sitcom called Tap-Tap, named after the brightly colored buses that travel all around Haiti” Wilentz continues.

She is scathing about IOM’s sitcom, prompting the latest review in the New York Times Book Review to remark:  ”She can be waspish, sometimes overly so — her takedown of a foreign-sponsored Haitian sitcom for its irrelevance and insipidity comes across as heavy-handed (it’s a sitcom, for God’s sake),” the Times writes.

Wilentz alro reports that IOM also put more than two hundred information kiosks in the camps. More than two thousand letters were received and they have provided a unique insight into the unfolding human tragedy that followed the quake, the scale of which can defy the imagination. Some of the letters describe the suffering of hardworking families who have been devastated by the quake.

Wilentz’s tone verges on the exasperated throughout the book as she flails the humanitarian community for failing to rescue Haiti. She finds a lot to criticize. She even attacks the title of IOM’s flipbook ‘Voice of the Voiceless’, asking why the organization would bother producing a “professionally produced seventy-four-page digital IOM flipbook” of letters written by IDPs.

“It struck me funny,” Wilentz writes, “because that’s what used to be said of Aristide, back when he was preaching against the Duvalier regime in the 1980s. The idea that now the voice of Haiti’s voiceless is packaged in a coffee-table-style digital flipbook…all passes understanding”.

Wilentz is an enjoyable, yet infuriating read. It’s like riding on a long car journey with an old friend, who combines blinding insights with head-scratching, non sequiturs for everything and anything that pops into her head. 

Fred Voodoo, the title of the book, is the politically-incorrect way British reporters in particular would refer to the Haitian “man on the street” whose views they constantly canvassed for the media calls “color”. The title represents to Wilentz what she says is a common foreigners’ attitude of “condescension filled with pity,” and all the stereotypes outsiders have come to attach to Haitians — as “nice people, maybe,” but “disorganized, uneducated, untrained, corrupt” and somehow under the thrall of voodoo, a religion that represented “everything the white Westerner was not: exotic, African, pagan, exciting, dangerous, deep.”

When it comes to IOM, Wilentz describes fairly and accurately the burden of the organization’s work in Haiti and how the organization has operated in the country for almost twenty years. It started  ”when Haiti’s migratory problems were boat people leaving for the Bahamas and the United States or migrant workers heading to the Dominican Republic to cut cane.”

“Since the earthquake, IOM in Haiti has had bigger headaches, broader agendas, and more money to spend.” she continues, and notes that since 1998, the heads of IOM have both been former U.S. ambassadors to Haiti.

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Today, says Wilentz, IOM’s primary goal in Haiti is to depopulate the worst and most dangerous camps, as well as the most visible and she describes how over the past two years, “IOM had developed a more organized and ambitious plan that had been created in concert with the Haitian government and with Bill Clinton’s now defunct Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti. The plan was called 16/ 6, and it consisted of a schedule to move people out of six targeted camps back into sixteen of their old neighborhoods. It offered each family five hundred dollars toward reconstruction or rent.”

 Farewell, Fred Voodoo is available in hard copy or as an ebook for $11

Leonard Doyle is the head of Online Communications for IOM