Cracking the Donor Discourse on Haiti By Kanya D’Almeida
28 January 2011 — Toward Freedom
(IPS) – In her remarks last week to the president of the U.N. Security Council on the first anniversary of Haiti’s earthquake, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice called for a free and fair election that reflected the views of Haitian voters, applauded the work of the U.N. Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), and declared that the “prospects for rebuilding Haiti depend upon maintaining a secure environment and creating jobs for Haitians”.
Rice made no mention of historic patterns of Western coercion, occupation, interference and destruction in Haiti, which has rendered the grassroots movement in the country virtually powerless.
“It was striking to hear Rice talking about the ‘will’ of the Haitian people as essential to moving forward,” Peter Hallward, author of “Damning the Flood – Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment”, told IPS.
“For her to say this publically involves a level of hypocrisy that is quite staggering in light of what the U.S. has done to disrupt the mobilisation of the Haitian people over the last hundred years or more,” Hallward said.
Since the earthquake, Haiti’s biggest stakeholders, namely, the U.N., the U.S., Britain, France and Canada, have dominated the news and analysis coming from the country.
The mainstream media, buffered by the discourse of these ‘concerned parties’, has followed a centuries-long practice of positing Haitians as helpless, passive recipients of aid, rather than as autonomous, sovereign, politically-able people.
However, if the international community is to address the root causes of Haiti’s destitution and recognise its incredible potential to recreate and reconstruct itself, many activists say we must crack the donor discourse and, instead, put our ears to ground to hear the calls from the grassroots.
Grassroots vs. IHRC: a Donor Deadlock
Natural disasters anywhere have already proved to be enormously lucrative for superpowers with the capacity to step in and “rebuilt, recreate and reconstruct”. In Haiti, critics say “disaster capitalism” has taken on a whole new meaning.
Lisa Davis, a professor in the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at CUNY law school and human rights advocacy director for MADRE, told IPS, “We’re fast approaching the one year anniversary of the donor conference where donor countries pledged almost 14.2 billion dollars towards reconstruction efforts.”
“Right now, very little of that money has been released; of that which has, most has gone to international NGOs rather than to local Haitian groups or even directly to the government,” she said.
Referring to the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), which includes representatives from each of the major international financial institutions and all of the major donor states but not a single representative from the strong, resilient grassroots movement in Haiti, Davis told IPS, “They don’t prioritise voices of groups working locally on the reconstruction process.”
“What seems to be more important are the economic goals of donor states and their perception of what Haiti’s should look like post-earthquake,” she added.
“This is the cookie cutter process of countries being rebuilt from the outside, for example, when donors creatte economies that manufacture goods for export rather than to meet the needs of the Haitian community,” Davis said.
The presence of so many international agencies who are either unable or unwilling to engage with existing local groups, combined with NGOs’ top-down method of aid distribution, has exacerbated disparities, shortages and violence in the camps, critics say.
Declaration from Below
MADRE works in close partnership with KOFAVIV, a grassroots organisation working tirelessly to support women in the 22 IDP camps spread across the country. Yet despite the U.N.’s ostensible benevolence, Davis said that MINUSTAH has consistently failed to partner with KOFAVIV, or use its funds to increase the group’s capacity.
“MINUSTAH’s peacekeeping troops are totally disorganised, cannot speak the language, they’re not patrolling at night, or even policing all the camps, which means a huge amount of funding is being poured into something completely inefficient,” Davis told IPS.
“The U.N. subcluster that is supposed to be tackling gender- based violence actually said they had trouble identifying all of the 22 camps in the country,” Davis said, “but this is ridiculous because all they had to do was ask KOFAVIV! This is indicative of a perpetual disconnect between the donors and the grassroots.”
While the international community pontificates on the ‘future’ of Haiti, coalitions on the ground are mobilising to push their own agenda, on an indigenous, organic platform.
As early as February last year, over 50 NGOs representing all corners of the vibrant Haitian landscape, from peasants and youth to farmers and women, met in Port-au-Prince and drew up a declaration.
It included priorities as particular as “putting the earth before capital and protecting life from commodifcation”, as well as broader principles such as creating a participatory democracy, privileging Haitian producers in decisions on trade and development, placing social needs at the centre and prioritising agriculture.
Without the explicit and sustained participation of this thriving movement, real recovery in Haiti likely remains a distant dream.
Fiction of autonomy
According to Beverly Bell, the programme coordinator of Other Worlds, “Haiti’s highly organised grassroots movement has never given up the battle its enslaved ancestors began.”
Within this framework, none of the actions being implemented in Haiti now reflect the will of the people. Rather, major donors appear to be doing their best to disempower, discredit and devalue the work of Haiti’s democratic movement.
According to Sayres Rudy, a professor of politics at Hampshire College, “Only six years ago, after 10 years of the deliberate paralysis of Aristide’s rule, the U.S. and France kidnapped and exiled the democratically elected president.”
Rudy added, “There has never been, since the fall of the Duvalier-Tonton Macoutes regime in 1986, the subsequent election of Aristide in 1990, his exile, return, and now exile again, any sense in which Haitian elections could be said to be free of external infringements.”
“The framework of all this is the history of external imposition, exploitation, coercion, and occupation that has helped create a regime immured from the vast majority of the population. There is no meaningful sense in which Haiti’s domestic politics – featuring now democratic processes – can be seen outside of the context of two centuries of Haiti’s carefully planned poverty and subordination by internal and external elites,” Rudy told IPS.
Davis told IPS that one of the primary causes of the chaos surrounding the election came as a result of the Haitian government’s systemic and structural weakness.
“Donor states have not focused on developing the capacity and infrastructure of the local government,” she confessed, “and have failed to channel the few funds that have been released into strengthening local authority.”
Lisa Davis of MADRE added, “Despite the warning of several international organisations that the election process was totally undemocratic, the U.S. and Canada pushed it through and the result was a huge debacle.”
Erasure of a history
Peter Hallward insists “the problem is not Haitian helplessness but the fact that they have been rendered powerless as a result of two long term processes: firstly the neoliberal effort to destroy the Haitian state, privatize its assets and destroy its local agriculture, its capacity to invest in its people and pursue its own national interests.”
“Secondly,” Hallward told IPS, “There has been blatant political interference in the system in order to ensure that the threat of real democratic change – the empowerment of the majority of the Haitian people – didn’t pose a threat to the interests of the Haitian elite and their allies abroad.”
A report by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) suggests that the current crisis in Haiti, supposedly caused by a run of cataclysmic natural disasters, has its roots back in 1804, when a successful slave rebellion in the former French colony of Saint-Domingue overthrew the colonial powers and established the world’s first black republic.
According to the report, the newly independent Haiti was forced to endure a paralysing embargo maintained by Britain, France and the United States until it agreed to pay 90 million gold francs for “lost property” – i.e., slaves – forcing it to begin its existence under the incapacitating burden of debt and embargo.
Ever since, Haiti has suffered repeated blows from Western powers seeking to punish, control and exploit the resource- rich country. Hand in hand with a tiny Haitian elite, the U.S., Britain and France have effectively transformed a country of agrarian farmers into a nation of assembly-line wage slaves, and developed its cities into hubs of export production for foreign companies.
Alex Dupey, author of “The Prophet and the Power: Jean Bertrand Aristide, the International Community and Haiti”, writes, “trade liberalization not only exacerbated the decline of agriculture and the dispossession of farmers, but when combined with an industrial strategy that located assemblies in Port-au-Prince, it also propelled rural immigrants into the capital city. Port-au- Prince grew from a city of 150,000 inhabitants in 1950 to over 3 million in 2008.”
After the earthquake, this over-concentration of slum- dwellers has been cited repeatedly as the “cause” of food shortages, sexual violence and instability in Port-au-Prince, when in fact the crisis was caused by international development policies long before the earthquake.