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Why We Shouldn't Stigmatize Haiti

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In April, as part of a series of photo essays I'm doing, I made my way to Haiti for the recent Haitian Senatorial elections.

When I mentioned Haiti to friends, colleagues and travel agents, the universal response was "what?!?!?!". But I completely understood this reaction. I was worried myself. Haiti is thought to be a place where kidnappings are de rigueur. It's widely believed If your ride from the airport didn't show up on time, you might just be 'disappeared'. Given all of the talk of danger, I started to have nightmares of having my throat slit by the flight attendant as I deplaned.

So I made out a will. I took out all sorts of exotic insurance policies that I cannot discuss without risking them being voided. I signed up for a medical evacuation service and got prescriptions for Malarone and Azithromycin.

First, let me get this out of the way. Haiti is sad, yes. Desperate, yes. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and it shows. If you are Haitian and under five years old, you are more likely to die than if you were born anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. If you are a woman, you are more likely to die giving birth here than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. If you are Haitian, there's a 50/50 chance you can't read or write. If you are Haitian and you die, there's a 50/50 chance what killed you was a water-borne illness. One of the leading causes of death in Haiti is diarrhea. The nation's children have it the worst: 98 percent of Haiti's children don't finish secondary school; thousands of Haitian children become victims of human trafficking every year; and 19,000 children in Haiti currently live with HIV/AIDS.

But that is only one part of the story. The other is that the country is stunning and Haitians are incredible people. It's nowhere near as apocalyptic as people make it out to be. In fact, for experienced travelers who understand the risks, caveats and cautions - it's a great place to see.

Haiti's proximity to the U.S. (only an hour-and-a-half from Miami) provides a compelling case for engaging programs and policies that can make life-saving differences to the men, women and children I met. They are, literally, our neighbors. There are nations everywhere that need help, but compared to a nation across the ocean, the cost of supporting our close neighbors is minimal. Haitians who are lucky enough to have a job earn the equivalent of $600 a year. As you can imagine, it doesn't take much to make a significant impact on the wider community.

Not that there aren't obstacles. Government corruption can prevent real, beneficial change from happening (things such as education, electricity and basic health care). The wrong kinds of "charity" render people apathetic and don't galvanize the population to help themselves. And a lack of long-term stability means a lack of foreign investors.

That's why it's important to at least start neutralizing the stigma and fear. While it's not going to be the most attractive choice for Caribbean tourism, Haiti is also not the abyss. Far from it.

My photos from the Haitian elections can be seen at www.jeffantebi.com but I want to point out that they are not good 'tourism' images. They are dramatic.

I'm currently in Afghanistan photographing the elections here.