Since late August, news from Haiti has been dominated by the devastation hurricanes and tropical storms have brought to an already weak and fragile country. With cities and towns covered by mud, 3.3 million Haitians facing the prospect of starvation, and international organizations and the Haitian government working feverishly with limited resources to respond both to immediate needs and to the challenges of rebuilding the country, it is not surprising that the little space accorded to Haiti in the U.S press is taken by this story.
Looming behind these storms, however, is another one: the simmering storm of a disaffected youthful population increasingly alienated from its own society. Unless the Haitian government of President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis, supported by the United States and the international community, can provide greater opportunities to the country’s young women and men, an ill wind of unrest will blow through Haiti, devastating it even more. One Haitian government idea for expanding opportunities merits international support: the creation of a national service corps to provide Haiti youth opportunities for meaningful employment while helping to rebuild their country.
Prime Minister Pierre-Louis has exhibited a lifetime of work as an advocate for disadvantaged and disaffected youth. Before becoming prime minister, she was Executive Director of the privately-funded Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty (FOKAL). During her ratification hearings, the Prime Minister spoke of creating a national service corps to offer opportunities for Haitian youth to rebuild their country much like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and other Works Progress Administration (WPA) organizations helped employ Americans to rebuild the United States during the Great Depression. Addressing the hopelessness of Haitian youth is an essential requirement for a healthy Haiti. While no single program will meet this requirement, Pierre-Louis’ idea of a national service corps that provides young men and women opportunities to take concrete strides toward youthful aspirations merits strong consideration – and support – by all who do not wish to see Haiti devastated by the ill wind of youthful unrest.
Pierre-Louis will need significant and steadfast support from within and beyond Haiti to be able to respond to the simmering storm of Haitian youth. During his campaign, Barack Obama spoke of the need to establish a ‘true partnership’ with Haiti. Helping the Haitian government respond to the plaintive cries of youth seeking opportunities to dream of – and achieve – a more positive future by supporting a national service corps should be an essential component of a new US-Haiti partnership.
Haiti’s population is quite young. While exact numbers vary it is widely estimated that 40 percent of the population is younger than 14, 60 percent younger than 25. These Haitians have no personal recollection of living under the Duvalier dictatorship that fell 22 years ago or of experiencing the hopeful moments of the ‘liberated Haiti’ that followed its demise. Rather, their more recent experience is of unmet expectations, unrelenting poverty, political and personal violence, and governments that hold little prospect – or concern – for improving their lives.
On June 15, 2008, a fiery automobile accident in Port-au-Prince claimed the lives of four members of Barikad Crew, a Creole rap group enormously popular among Haitian youth. Six days later, a crowd of roughly 100,000 young women and men jammed the Champs de Mars, the capital’s central square to attend the funeral service – also broadcast on national television and radio. Haiti’s leading international celebrity, hip-hop artist and humanitarian Wyclef Jean, flew from New York to address the gathering, which also attracted scores of musicians and rap artists from Haiti’s poor neighborhoods. Few of the country’s elites or political personalities attended, with the exception of the Minister of Social Affairs. The latter, approaching the podium to speak on behalf of the government, was spontaneously and rancorously shouted off the stage. From all accounts, this was the only dissonant moment during an otherwise calm event where Haitians mostly in their teens and 20’s expressed a sad, albeit powerful, solidarity over the loss of their heroes.
Barikad Crew’s music, like that of other groups from Haiti’s slums, addresses the harsh realities of young people coming of age in an environment filled with poverty, violence and hopelessness. The group’s poetic rhymes are full of truth and authenticity that bespeak the alienation of Haitian youth from a society that has, in the words of one teenager, “robbed me of my right to dream.” Prime Minister Pierre-Louis hears and understands the truth and authenticity of the throbbing beat of the Barikad Crew, evidenced by FOKAL’s contribution to help cover its member’s funeral costs.
Each day, as darkness blankets the hills above Port-au-Prince, a pulsating beat begins to emanate from the crowded neighborhoods below. Much like Haiti’s revolutionary drums once forewarned upheaval and change, the throbbing bass that accompanies the lyrical exhortations forewarns of an urgency to invest in Haitian youth.
Robert Maguire, on leave from Trinity Washington University, is a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC. The views of the author do not represent the views of the Institute, which does not take policy positions.