Blog Archives

Ghosts Threaten to Return to Haiti

By Nikhil Aziz, March 25, 2010

Some of the advice for how Haiti ought to rebuild after the earthquake sounds hauntingly familiar. There are echoes of the same bad development advice Haiti has received for decades, even before the nation faced its current devastating situation. To avoid repeating past failures, we would be wise to review how previous aid models led down the wrong path.

Twelve years ago, Grassroots International released a study entitled “Feeding Dependency, Starving Democracy: USAID Policies in Haiti.” Offering an in-depth examination of USAID development policies in Haiti, the study concluded that official aid actually damaged the very aspects of Haitian society it was allegedly trying to fix. The aid was undermining democracy and creating too much dependency.

The study was particularly critical of the development community for making Haiti into a net food importer when it had been nearly self-sufficient and, in fact, a major rice producer. Despite, or because of, years of aid programs and structural adjustment policies imposed by international financial institutions and donor countries, the study found that Haiti’s food dependency was actually increasing. This disturbing result was partially caused by subsidized food aid programs that fed transnational agribusiness corporations but didn’t help Haitians grow food for their families.

Sadly, much of that 12-year-old study could have been written today.

Making Matters Worse

As recently as 2007, a USAID agronomist told Grassroots International that Haiti’s small farm sector simply had no future. This was a callous prognosis for the nation’s three million-plus small farmers (out of a population of 9 million). In a nutshell, USAID’s plan for Haiti and many other poor countries is to push farmers out of subsistence agriculture as quickly as possible. Farmers that might otherwise be supported to grow food are frequently engaged as laborers in work-for-food programs. Rather than pursue innovative programs to keep rural food markets local and support food sovereignty, misguided aid programs encourage farmers to grow higher-value export crops such as cashews, coffee, and, more recently, jatropha for agrofuels.

USAID policies seek to make optimum use of Haiti’s “comparative advantage” — namely, its abundant cheap labor — by funneling displaced farmers into low-wage assembly plants in the cities or near the border with the Dominican Republic, a strategy critically examined in the FPIF article Sweatshops Won’t Save Haiti. Among other consequences, this strategy is resulting in staggering levels of rural-to-urban migration, leading to dangerous overcrowding of Port-au-Prince. Passed by the U.S. Congress in 2006, programs such as the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity Through Partnership Encouragement Act (HOPE) have lured transnational companies to Haiti with offers of no-tariff exports on textiles assembled in Haitian factories to capitalize on this pool of laborers.

Export-driven aid and development policies were a bad idea before the earthquake; they are a terrible idea now. Development agencies currently face a choice. In the name of rebuilding Haiti, will USAID and other large donor and aid agencies pursue this same formula over the coming years? Or will they take a different tack that puts Haiti’s vibrant network of civil society organizations at the center of rebuilding efforts?

Development Rut

The record of the last dozen years is not a pretty one. Food aid in Haiti rose steadily from 16,000 metric tons of imported rice in 1980 to more than 270,000 metric tons by 2004.  This 17-fold increase is one example of the shift from at least partial food self-reliance to almost total food dependency. The main cause of this shift was international development policies that emphasized free trade and export agriculture over food sovereignty.

The impact of misguided USAID and other development policies also produced significant rural-to-urban migration (nearly 4.5 percent annually), as displaced farmers flocked to the cities in search of work in the assembly plant/maquila sector. Despite the promises of the HOPE initiatives, unemployed farmers found far fewer jobs than imagined and at even lower wages than hoped. Worldwide competition for these assembly plants remains fierce, and many investors have found more attractive places than Haiti to set up shop. Casting further gloom on this sector is the current slowdown in the global economy. Fewer assembly plants may be necessary, and the destruction of Haiti’s infrastructure makes it unlikely that plants would relocate there.

In the period from 2003-2009, Haiti’s foreign debt rose from $1.2 to $1.5 billion. International lenders insisted on balancing budgets even if that meant cutting essential social services. During almost the same period, the United Nations stationed a force of 6,000-9,000 peacekeepers in Haiti known by its acronym, MINUSTAH. These peace-keepers have received mixed reports. Even before the earthquake many Haitians described their situation as a military occupation. The Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH), a Grassroots International partner, has documented numerous human rights abuses by MINUSTAH personnel. A cautionary note about current militarized aid comes from wary Haitians quoted in the media: “We asked for 10,000 doctors and nurses; we got 10,000 soldiers.” Some post-earthquake development plans rely on continued foreign troop presence, raising concerns about ongoing dependency and social unrest.

Haiti’s ecology continues to deteriorate, demonstrated by the tremendous loss of life and soil in recent hurricanes. Forests barely cover 2 percent of Haitian territory. Between 1990 and 2000, the UNDP reports that natural forest cover declined by 50 percent. Misguided development policies and practices can turn natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes into humanitarian catastrophes. An already weakened government that had privatized everything from building roads to teaching children has found itself ill-equipped to emerge from natural shocks. Bad policies have also undermined the ability of Haitians to overcome the spike in food prices in 2008, when many hungry families rebelled. Policies advancing food sovereignty are few, although we note the Herculean work of many Haitian popular and nongovernmental organizations in strengthening the ability of Haitian small farmers to grow food for their families and local markets.

There are other hopeful signs. While many aspects of Haiti’s reality have stayed the same since Grassroots International published Feeding Dependency, Starving Democracy in 1998, others have changed for the better. Some aid agencies, such as CARE, took to heart many of the findings in the study and altered the way they provide aid. For example, in 2007 CARE gave up $45 million in annual federal funding because, as it said, “American food aid is not only plagued with inefficiencies, but also may hurt some of the very poor people it aims to help.” Others expanded partnerships with Haitian social movements and utilized local expertise to inform their programs.

Holistic Alternatives

Camille Chalmers of Grassroots International’s partner, the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA), suggests concrete ways to turn around the appalling performance of international aid. Most fundamentally, instead of traditional agency-to-agency aid that turns Haitians into “aid recipients,” earthquake rebuilding needs to be a people-to-people effort that transforms Haitians into protagonists of their recovery.

Chalmers notes that this reconstruction can’t be conceived of as simply rebuilding damaged physical infrastructures. He suggests, for example, working holistically to overcome the 45 percent illiteracy rate through an effective and free public school system that respects the history, culture, and ecosystems of Haiti. A new public health system is essential to bring together modern and traditional medicine and offer quality, affordable primary services to all of the population.

Sustainable development is dead in the water without reversing the environmental crisis and replenishing Haiti’s depleted watersheds. Likewise, Haiti’s damaged soil is begging for models of agroecology and food sovereignty, based on comprehensive agrarian reforms that respect ecosystems, biodiversity, and the needs and culture of small farmers.

The reconstruction of a new capital city has to be based on a different logic. The Port-au-Prince that emerges from the ruins should feature public transportation, biodiverse public parks, urban agriculture, and popular arts. Such a humane and balanced urbanization should respect ordinary workers and vendors as true wealth creators,

And finally, recommends Chalmers, Haiti must once and for all cut its ties of dependency with Washington, the European Union, and others. Development policies based on the “Washington Consensus” ought to be abandoned, including militarized aid such as the MINUSTAH soldiers. True peacekeepers, in the form of people-to-people solidarity brigades, would instead be a great help.

A holistic rehabilitation and development plan of this nature will require much more than money. It would require a reversal of policies that run counter to healthy, sustainable development. The Haitian government should resist outside efforts to pry open the economy to imports and to balance Haiti’s budget by cutting health and education spending. In the agricultural sector, Haiti needs to emphasize environmentally friendly food sovereignty so that Haitian families can eat food they grow in fields that hold soil. A virtuous circle of support can allow both the governmental and non-governmental sectors to grow strong together.

Most importantly, this work must be led by Haitians themselves. To  keep the development industry honest and advocate for exactly this kind of long-term, holistic aid grassroots organizations must steer Haiti’s development agenda through the challenging decades ahead. Only then will Haiti fully escape its impoverishing dependency and build a strong democracy.


.Scientists warned Haiti officials of quake in ’08

By RICK CALLAHAN, Associated Press Writer Rick Callahan, Associated Press Writer Fri Jan 15, 6:18 am ET INDIANAPOLIS – Scientists who detected worrisome signs of growing stresses in the fault that unleashed this week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti said they warned officials there two years ago that their country was ripe for a major earthquake.

Their sobering findings, presented during a geological conference in March 2008 and at meetings two months later, showed that the fault was capable of causing a 7.2-magnitude earthquake — slightly stronger than Tuesday’s 7.0 quake that rocked the impoverished country.

Though Haitian officials listened intently to the research, the nearly two years between the presentation and the devastating quake was not enough time for Haiti to have done much to have prevented the massive destruction.

“It’s too short of a timeframe to really do something, particularly for a country like Haiti, but even in a developed country it’s very difficult to start very big operations in two years,” Eric Calais, a professor of geophysics at Purdue University, said Thursday.

Their conclusions also lacked a specific timeframe that could have prodded quick action to shore up the hospitals, schools and other buildings that collapsed and crumbled, said Paul Mann, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas’ Institute for Geophysics.

At the time of earthquake, which the international Red Cross estimated killed 45,000 to 50,000 people, Haiti was still trying to recover from a string catastrophes. In 2008 alone, it was hit four times by tropical storms and hurricanes. The country also suffers from a string of social ills including poverty, unstable governments and poor building standards that make buildings vulnerable in earthquakes.

“Haiti’s government has so many other problems that when you give sort of an unspecific prediction about an earthquake threat they just don’t have the resources to deal with that sort of thing,” Mann said.

In March 2008, Calais and Mann were among a group of scientists who presented findings on the major quake risk along the Enriquillo fault during the conference in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Their conclusions were based both on geologic work Mann conducted along the same fault and recent findings by Calais.

Calais had detected rising stresses along the fault using global positioning system measurements that showed that the Earth’s crust in the area where the fault traverses southern Haiti was slowly deforming as pressure grew within the fault.

That pressure, paired with Mann’s work and the fact that the last major quake in the area was in 1770, led to the prediction that the fault could produce a 7.2-magnitude temblor.

Calais said he also presented the findings to officials in Haiti during a series of meetings in May 2008 that included the country’s prime minister and other high-ranking officials. He said he stressed to the officials that if they did nothing else they should at least begin reinforcing hospitals, schools and key government buildings to weather a strong quake.

“We were taken very seriously but unfortunately it didn’t translate into action,” he said. “The reality is that it was too short of a timeframe to really do something, particularly for a country like Haiti struggling with so many problems.”

Calais said Haiti has no seismic stations for monitoring quake activity, while adjoining Dominican Republic has a small seismic network.

Although the specific risks of the fault zone near Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, may not have been known until recent years, the region has a long history of major earthquakes, said Carol Prentice, a U.S. Geological Survey research geologist based in Menlo Park, Calif.

Those include earthquakes that destroyed Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, in 1692 and 1907, that also occurred along the Enriquillo fault, which extends hundreds of miles through the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica.

She said Calais’ GPS studies were the first along the fault to quantify the potential quake risk in the heavily populated Port-au-Prince area.

Prentice said she, Calais and Mann had sought U.S. government funding over the years for detailed excavations in southern Haiti to document evidence of past quakes in soil layers along the fault but that work has not yet been funded.

“It’s entirely possible that we’ll see additional quakes along this fault in the years to come. But we really don’t know the risk if those studies aren’t done,” she said.

How Haiti’s Quarter Million Slaves Will Survive The Quake

Information on Slave Labor and Way You can Take Action to Help End Slave Labor

How Haiti’s Quarter Million Slaves Will Survive The Quake

What has been a slow crisis of poverty and enslavement for almost 250,000 child slaves in Haiti, known as restaveks, turned into an immediate crisis this week with the brutal 7.0 earthquake that hit the country. Mere hours after the news of the devastation in Haiti broke, America and countries around the world saw an outpouring of aid from international organizations and individuals. Groups have organized drives for everything from donations to shoes to volunteers.

But as we all get that warm and fuzzy feeling from helping our neighbors in their time of great need, it’s important to remember that millions of Haitians needed aid before this earthquake, and they’ll continue to need it long after the media fervor has died. And those with the greatest need will be the enslaved restaveks.

Restaveks are a huge part of Haitian society and the economy. They are usually children from extremely poor families who are sent away to work as domestic servants in wealthier homes. The children aren’t paid for their work, but provided shelter and a sometimes meager meal supply. In the best case scenarios, families will send their restavek children to school. But restaveks often work long days performing a variety of household tasks for nothing more that a meal or two a day. Two-thirds of restaveks are girls, and they are extremely vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse from the families who house and control them. The life of a restavek child in Haiti often varies between bleak and hopeless, and many children never successfully leave their slave conditions.

Read the rest of this entry

Do we want to Help Haiti? – Our role in Haiti’s Plight

Any large city in the world would have suffered extensive damage from an earthquake on the scale of the one that ravaged Haiti’s capital city on Tuesday afternoon, but it’s no accident that so much of Port-au-Prince now looks like a war zone. Much of the devastation wreaked by this latest and most calamitous disaster to befall Haiti is best understood as another thoroughly manmade outcome of a long and ugly historical sequence.

The country has faced more than its fair share of catastrophes. Hundreds died in Port-au-Prince in an earthquake back in June 1770, and the huge earthquake of 7 May 1842 may have killed 10,000 in the northern city of Cap ­Haitien alone. Hurricanes batter the island on a regular basis, mostly recently in 2004 and again in 2008; the storms of September 2008 flooded the town of Gonaïves and swept away much of its flimsy infrastructure, killing more than a thousand people and destroying many thousands of homes. The full scale of the destruction resulting from this earthquake may not become clear for several weeks. Even minimal repairs will take years to complete, and the long-term impact is incalculable.

What is already all too clear, ­however, is the fact that this impact will be the result of an even longer-term history of deliberate impoverishment and disempowerment. Haiti is routinely described as the “poorest country in the western hemisphere“. This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.

The noble “international community” which is currently scrambling to send its “humanitarian aid” to Haiti is largely responsible for the extent of the suffering it now aims to reduce. Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s phrase) “from absolute misery to a dignified poverty” has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies.

Aristide’s own government (elected by some 75% of the electorate) was the latest victim of such interference, when it was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering in resentment. The UN has subsequently maintained a large and enormously expensive stabilisation and pacification force in the country.

Haiti is now a country where, according to the best available study, around 75% of the population “lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% – four and a half million people – live on less than $1 per day”. Decades of neoliberal “adjustment” and neo-imperial intervention have robbed its government of any significant capacity to invest in its people or to regulate its economy. Punitive international trade and financial arrangements ensure that such destitution and impotence will remain a structural fact of Haitian life for the foreseeable future.

It is this poverty and powerlessness that account for the full scale of the horror in Port-au-Prince today. Since the late 1970s, relentless neoliberal assault on Haiti’s agrarian economy has forced tens of thousands of small farmers into overcrowded urban slums. Although there are no reliable statistics, hundreds of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents now live in desperately sub-standard informal housing, often perched precariously on the side of deforested ravines. The selection of the people living in such places and conditions is itself no more “natural” or accidental than the extent of the injuries they have suffered.

As Brian Concannon, the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, points out: “Those people got there because they or their parents were intentionally pushed out of the countryside by aid and trade policies specifically designed to create a large captive and therefore exploitable labour force in the cities; by definition they are people who would not be able to afford to build earthquake resistant houses.” Meanwhile the city’s basic infrastructure – running water, electricity, roads, etc – remains woefully inadequate, often non-existent. The government’s ability to mobilise any sort of disaster relief is next to nil.

The international community has been effectively ruling Haiti since the 2004 coup. The same countries scrambling to send emergency help to Haiti now, however, have during the last five years consistently voted against any extension of the UN mission’s mandate beyond its immediate military purpose. Proposals to divert some of this “investment” towards poverty reduction or agrarian development have been blocked, in keeping with the long-term patterns that continue to shape the ­distribution of international “aid”.

The same storms that killed so many in 2008 hit Cuba just as hard but killed only four people. Cuba has escaped the worst effects of neoliberal “reform”, and its government retains a capacity to defend its people from disaster. If we are serious about helping Haiti through this latest crisis then we should take this comparative point on board. Along with sending emergency relief, we should ask what we can do to facilitate the self-empowerment of Haiti’s people and public institutions. If we are serious about helping we need to stop ­trying to control Haiti’s government, to pacify its citizens, and to exploit its economy. And then we need to start paying for at least some of the damage we’ve already done.