Wanting more details, the Qdoba employee piqued “Were you scared? Did you sleep in a tent or a hut? Were you able to shower?” Without downplaying the meager conditions that much of the country endures, I quickly began to deconstruct his narrow concept of Haiti by sharing my experiences working with small businesses, traveling alone on public transportation, and living in a well constructed home with a Haitian family and community that I whole-heartedly trust. With a surprised look on his face, my new friend confessed that his perception of Haiti was no different than that of chaos in Syria, where locals would be “running wild with guns and lighting things on fire.” Calmly, I reassured him that while I can only speak from my experiences, my view of Haiti was not of violence, but rather of contradictions - an intersection of beauty and poverty. Truth be told, the Haitians I met were friendly, passionate, hardworking, big dreaming people with a strong desire to learn, but severely deprived of opportunity.
These types of questions are just a few of the popular ones I receive when speaking of my time spent in Haiti. However, I am never surprised by these questions since the typical US perspective of Haiti is that the country is utterly destitute, which would be accurate of much of the country, but certainly not comprehensive. The truth is that real economic development is taking place too, but largely goes unnoticed by the international community. For example, since Martelly took office just under one year ago, there has already been $450 million invested in tourism in the country, including the construction of a 173-room Marriott in Port-au-Prince. According to Martelly, he’s “tried to change the perception [the world] has of Haiti as a place where nothing works…that Haiti is just about bad news.”
I never hold fault against my peers for the negative opinions they may hold, since their opinions are simply a product of what they’ve heard and seen. Instead, I try to reframe their perspectives, just as I did with my friend at Qdoba. However, when the only news reported about Haiti is of corruption, destruction, and suffering, it is to be expected that their visualized image of Haiti is exclusively negative. One blogger suggests that Cite Soleil is the third worst place to visit in the world in 2012. This collectively adverse public image generates further distrust for the country, which prolongs vicious cycles and increases the difficulty to obtain investment in the Haitian private sector.
The media is not the only group that seems to be laser-focused on the disaster images, as many organizations working in Haiti also solicit donations by using photographs of poverty to connect emotionally with potential donors. This is another example of an unfortunate side effect resulting from positive intentions, in that a solely negative perception of Haiti is developed. Put simply, input (the things heard and seen) determines output (public perceptions). The only way to change the global perception of Haiti from exclusively hopeless to one of investment potential is to change the input, the story that is communicated to the world beyond Haiti’s borders.