On-Site Reports from Our Peacekeepers

Working as a Liaison Officer in Haiti

International Peace Cooperation Assignment in Haiti
Shindo Hayase, Cabinet Office

What is the first thing you do before you visit a country for the first time, either on business or for pleasure?

Well, you might stop by a bookstore and look for guidebooks. Or at least that's what I did when I heard I would be dispatched to Haiti. But, as I had half expected, I was able to find all kinds of guides for the Caribbean Islands—Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and more—but not for Haiti. That comes as no surprise considering the shaky security condition in Haiti, to be sure, but it reminded me of the distance between Haiti and Japan. I, too, must admit that, until recently, all I had known about Haiti is that it's somewhere in the Caribbean, that it's the world's first black-led republic, and that it was devastated by a massive earthquake.

So much for the preliminaries. I have been assigned to the International Peace Cooperation Assignment in Haiti, within the Secretariat of the International Peace Cooperation Headquarters, Cabinet Office, government of Japan, since April 2011. An engineering unit and two staff officers of the Japan Self-Defense Forces had been dispatched to the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) to help Haiti recover from the 2010 earthquake. My job is to support the SDF's activities in coordination with our liaison officers. Because Haiti is on the other side of Japan, our communication is heavily dependent on e-mail. Since we tend to skim over reports on the local situation and the SDF's activities, I had found it difficult to feel the on-site atmosphere. So, I learned a lot, having worked in Haiti for one and a half months as a liaison officer.

Near an SDF-operating area. Children gathering wood to make charcoal
Near an SDF-operating area. Children gathering wood to make charcoal

It quickly became clear that Haiti is an extremely poor country. Moreover, the country was devastated by the earthquake that hit last year, especially the capital city of Port-au-Prince. I set foot in Haiti after changing planes twice, all the while worried about the terrible conditions I was about to see.

First, I was impressed by Haiti's enormous vitality. Street vendors line up parasols side by side on every street, and the city is jam-packed with thousands of people and cars, most of which were made in Japan. I was simply overwhelmed by the chaotic energy of vividly handwritten signboards, uniquely painted tap taps— a Haitian version of remodeled buses—heaps of trash, and big, black pigs that feed on it.

A scene in the town
A scene in the town

Street vendors selling lunch boxes, which usually consist of chicken, potatoes, and plantains
Street vendors selling lunch boxes, which usually consist of chicken, potatoes, and plantains

A truck converted into a tap tap. What does that painted message say?
A truck converted into atap tap. What does that painted message say?

I had heard that much of the debris has been removed, but the city is still dotted with camps of the displaced earthquake victims, in addition to shacks—every bit as shabby as the camps set up for the victims—that were apparently built before the earthquake. On the other hand, foreign-owned supermarkets brimmed with luxurious imported goods (even by Japanese standards); they were full of people who could obviously afford to buy them in bulk. Drop into an office supplies store, and you will find the latest Japanese game consoles being sold. You cannot simply label Haiti a "poor" country.

A Japanese car and voodoo art (Voodoo is a local religion in Haiti.)
A Japanese car and voodoo art (Voodoo is a local religion in Haiti.)

A restaurant for foreigners and well-off people located on a hill, where I had a terrible stomachache after dining
A restaurant for foreigners and well-off people located on a hill, where I had a terrible stomachache after dining

Japanese liaison officers are basically in charge of liaison and coordination between the SDF engineering unit and staff officers, and between relevant organizations, but they also observe the activities of the engineering unit on the ground and report on them to the Secretariat in Japan. I am sure that the enormous damage brought by the Great East Japan Earthquake shocked all of Japan, while the relief activities operated by the SDF encouraged any number of Japanese. It was a great honor for me to have an opportunity to take a close look at the SDF's efforts in the wake of a disaster similar to that of Japan in a country far from Japan.

A Japanese peacekeeper and local kids
A Japanese peacekeeper and local kids

The engineering unit's activities of removing debris and constructing simple facilities may not seem so appealing. However, looking at SDF personnel talking to local children, I felt that Japanese activities are favorably accepted. When I was walking on the street, Haitians would often call me, "Japonais!" smiling and turning up the thumb for reasons I could not understand. Almost all the cars I saw in the city were Japanese. For Haitians, Japan may not be as far away as Japanese think.

Several Japanese NGOs are in operation in Haiti, and some Japanese staffers work in the local offices of international organizations. To make a better contribution of the peacekeeping operations in the development of Haiti, the SDF has to cooperate with these organizations. Japan's way of supporting Haiti is at a turning point from post-earthquake reconstruction to self-sustaining state-building. I will do my best to make Japan's international peace cooperation in Haiti more fulfilling, and make the most of my experience.

September 2011
Cabinet Office, Government of Japan1-6-1 Nagata-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-8914, Japan.
Tel: +81-3-5253-2111