Thursday, June 28, 2012

Behind the Numbers: Haiti’s Homeless Population Drops?

June 28, 2012

It’s one thing to be proud of an accomplishment, such as reducing the amount of homelessness by constructing homes—but it is irresponsible and criminal to attack, forcefully evict, and destroy thousands of shelters consisting of battered tents and tarps, then brag internationally about seeing a reduction in the levels of visible homelessness. Yet this is exactly what is happening right now in Haiti. Unfortunately the forced eviction of the internally displaced not a new phenomenon. If this is the way success is measured by the Haitian government and the International Organization of Migration (IOM), it should come as no surprise why some of Haiti’s most vulnerable are increasingly protesting their living conditions and the constant threat of eviction.

This week, 1,000 frustrated Haitians marched through the streets of Port au Prince demanding that the government take action to alleviate the on-going housing crisis. The spark for the protest was the announcement by Pierre Andre Gedeon, an official with the Environment Ministry, who stated that the government “wanted to demolish several hundred homes to build channels and reforest the hillsides in an effort to curb flooding in the annual rainy season.”1081

Tarp homes destroyed at an IDP camp. Photo source:

While Port au Prince is certainly in dire need of reforestation and infrastructure projects, the way to move forward is not to intensify the housing crisis by evicting the homeless without a plan, but rather to work to construct homes in suitable areas so that the hundreds of thousands who lost everything in the earthquake can have a chance to lead safe and healthy lives.

The shelters targeted by the government for demolition sprung up in the hillsides of Jalousie largely as a result of prior forced evictions and failed resettlement initiatives. It is a community of people who have been victimized by their government, aid organizations and nature—but unfortunately they are not the only ones.

Earlier this week it was announced by the IOM that the number of internally displaced people had fallen to just under 400,000—down from the peak of 1.5 million after the earthquake.

At the surface the story might sound like a momentous achievement, but the most important part of the story was missing. While announcing the reduction of the internally displaced, there were no accompanying announcements about the completion of significant housing projects—at least for the Haitian people anyway. Wednesday’s protests were a sharp example of this growing contradiction surrounding housing in Haiti, where one of the participants remarked that "Martelly didn't build any houses. How can he destroy our homes... If he comes to destroy our homes we're going to burn down Petionville."

The anger of the protestors is more than justified because since his inauguration over one year ago, President Michel Martelly has continuously made empty promises to Haiti’s vulnerable about the construction of free housing, yet nothing has emerged. However, at the same time there have been thousands of forced evictions in both public and private spaces often carried out by the Haitian police (illegal under international law)—at the behest of the government and local land/business owners. Martelly has shown that he and his administration have been much more effective at destroying the lives of Haiti’s poor and vulnerable than rebuilding them.

It is not as if the forced evictions have gone unnoticed by the international organizations entrusted to help Haiti get back on its feet either. Shortly after the earthquake, in September 2010, a report commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon estimated that “29% of the 1,268 camps studied had been closed forcibly, meaning the often violent relocation of tens of thousands of people.” Despite these initial statements of concern, very little has been done to prevent forced evictions, as the 12,000 strong United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has been totally ineffective at stopping the evictions or securing the camps.

An October 2011 survey by the University of San Francisco School of Law revealed that 34 percent of dis­placed per­sons reported leav­ing their camps because they were forced out by evictions. The same survey concluded that “it is likely that many dis­placed fam­i­lies who left the camps were unable to find sus­tain­able hous­ing and are liv­ing in con­di­tions even worse than those found in camps.”

Furthermore, a January 2012 report by Amnesty International stated that “Increasingly, displaced Haitians have reported tactics being used to coerce them into leaving the camps they have inhabited since the 2010 earthquake, including cash bribes and threats by plain-clothed security forces or armed groups.”

As such, it appears that those who lost everything in the earthquake have no safe haven in Haiti, as we are witnessing what largely amounts to gentrification in Haiti. The clearing of the makeshift camps on the hillsides, and the prioritization of 5 star resorts did not go unnoticed, as Monday’s protest also involved rocks being thrown at the hotel financed by the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund as an expression of their anger regarding the unbalanced reconstruction agenda.

Thus more than two years after the earthquake, it appears more than ever that assistance to victims is not a real priority. It must be because the construction of homes for the displaced is not as lucrative as the construction of sweatshops or walled resorts. It is the same reason why the reconstruction of basic public education and health systems have been largely neglected. Haiti is being reconstructed from the top down largely for the benefit of domestic and international investors, but it can only be a matter of time before the lopsided effort totally falls apart. Without a doubt, the failure will be portrayed as a victory, as those given the responsibility of rebuilding and helping Haiti heal have had a great deal of experience of confusing one with the other.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Undeserved Confidence: A Broken System of Aid in Haiti – Part 2

June 21, 2012

Talking about the structural ineffectiveness of charities and NGO’s is difficult because criticism of charity creates the problematic misconception that an individual is against easing the suffering of others, or the good intention to make the world a better place. This is not true. The problem is the wider framework within which charity occurs.

In 2003 for example, Haiti’s debt service was $57 million, whereas the combined government spending for education, healthcare, environment, and transportation was $39 million—for a country of 9 million people. This continued the trend whereby Haiti’s poverty has historically produced a tremendous amount of wealth through debt and interest repayments, and now as a lucrative laboratory of NGOs.

In order to bring about a development model which can really help reconstruct Haiti, while idealistic, NGOs should all work towards making themselves irrelevant. At the very least they should be monitored the same way that governments are, and have to engage with the communities to see what projects are needed, and not assumed.

With the emergency phase of relief over, this means that they should not simply import foreign professionals to do the jobs that locals are capable of, or could be trained to do. Despite the best of intentions, importing teams of foreign nurses down to Haiti for example is a tremendous waste of resources considering airfare, accommodation, food, security—when Haitian nurses are sitting unemployed in tent camps because the state hospitals were doubly destroyed by structural adjustment and the earthquake.

The debate regarding the depoliticizing of such a deeply political issue is something which needs to be discussed, as we must develop a system which allows us to move beyond the mere uttering of good intentions. The current shift to and promotion of philanthropy led development further justifies and naturalizes the system which allows an individual to become a multi-billionaire in a world where 80 percent of the world lives on US$10 a day. The focus is on the wrong end of the spectrum. We should not be congratulating the system which created a Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet, but rather condemn the system which created the 5 billion desperately poor people.

The reconstruction effort in Haiti has revealed that charity and goodwill has become a commodity. The process of helping to alleviate poverty and destruction has been turned into a business—a business which is predominately accountable to their donors, not the people they are entrusted to help.

From my perspective, the lack of progress in Haiti should not come as a surprise, as the portrayal of a socially conscious and politically neutral NGO-led development model in Haiti is a perfect Trojan horse for the entrenchment of the most extreme neoliberal economic restructuring documented to date. The goals, vision, and business model of the transnational NGO’s are of increased dependency in Haiti, which is directly opposed to goals of the Haitian people who demand a development model which brings about both self sufficiency and allows for self determination.

The role of NGOs in providing nearly all of the basic services in Haiti is an extreme example of neoliberalism in action—and it is failing the Haitian people miserably. The continued expansion of NGOs on the ground signals that for some, these are indeed boom times. Unfortunately, without a serious discussion about the nature of the development industry and NGOs, we can only expect the situation in Haiti to happen again elsewhere.

Without changing the wider structure in which these NGOs operate, it is impossible to expect real, sustainable results. Haiti’s failed reconstruction is a beacon that NGOs cannot replace the state, and that any attempt to do otherwise is destructive and dangerous. The tremendous amount of NGOs in Haiti have increased the dependency of the Haitian people through undemocratic and non-transparent projects, which serve to entrench the neoliberal ideals of privatized governance, a reduced role for the state, and free mobility of both foreign capital and people—while Haitians stay trapped in the IDP camps. Vast amounts of aid money, which could go to support Haitian grassroots organization or the Cuban medical missions, are spent on frivolous and superficial expenses for temporary, foreign NGO staffers.

The discussion about whether or not charity can exist within such an inhuman and exploitative capitalist system must be pushed to the forefront. While unpopular, it does force people to look into the true nature and motivations of charity in our current system. A simple donation to an NGO does not erase the crimes of history, which have created the divide between the rich and the poor. Haiti has become a microcosm of the problematic power relations between the first and third worlds. The causes are structural. The causes are deep.

The public demands for the implementation of basic public health and educational systems are not excessive by any means, but are discussed in donor circles as unreasonable and downright radical programs. This is because such systems would marginalize the NGOs area of operations. The first step should be to work with the Haitian people, listen to their demands, and give them control over the reconstruction of their own country. Anything less should be considered another form of colonialism.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Undeserved Confidence: A Broken System of Aid in Haiti – Part 1

June 18, 2012

It has been two and a half years since a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, and the failed reconstruction of the country has led many good-intentioned observers to ask how this could occur. With billions of dollars promised to “build Haiti back better,” why hasn’t it happened? The sad reality is that while the earthquake may have destroyed a significant part of Haiti, it did not destroy the predatory and exploitative imperialist system that has historically impoverished Haiti - it unfortunately intensified it.

More than two years later, the reconstruction process has been a very lucrative undertaking for many private organizations. Haiti remains in ruins, with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) benefiting from the extreme privatization of the Haitian state, resulting in a patchwork system of services that are unaccountable to the Haitian people. While many articles appearing around the anniversary discussed and compiled the statistics about the faces of the failure, a deeper discussion needs to occur on why depending on NGOs and charities as a development model is dangerous, hypocritical, and totally unsustainable.

That the presence of NGOs in Haiti and elsewhere is portrayed as an apolitical phenomenon makes the discussion problematic. Just as the presence of the Red Cross in a country is often seen as a symbol of transnational humanity in action, NGOs are often perceived as being inherently beneficial. The reality in Haiti two years later reveals that it is much more complicated and a much more self-serving enterprise. Having so many organizations in the country can be considered as a symbol of the fundamental failure of the Haitian people and its culture.

This pattern of discarding the Haitian government in favor of mostly foreign NGOs became a template for “development” in Haiti over the course of several decades as the government was regarded as too corrupt and inefficient to be trusted with foreign funding. In particular, the massive amounts of funding would go to these foreign organizations with no accountability to the Haitian people, and unlike the conditions imposed via structural adjustment on the Haitian government, there is no need to follow any procedures of transparency to show how or where the money is being spent. In regard to the international community leading by example in Haiti, it is a classic case of do as we say, not as we do.

After the earthquake, the funding breakdown for the relief efforts reflected the extent to which the Haitian government had been sidelined. The Associated Press reported in early 2010 that of every aid dollar committed to Haiti for relief, only one cent would be directed to the Haitian government to help with the provision of services - with 75 cents going to USAID and the U.S. military. Despite this reconstruction plan becoming public knowledge, there was no outcry from the international community or major organizations working on the ground in Haiti, as this was not considered outrageous by any means but simply a continuation of the status quo.

The hypocrisy of the international community on the issue of “helping build Haiti back better” did lead several high-level figures to publicly criticize the entire reconstruction plan and the myth of reckless Haitian corruption. The Organization of the American States dismissed Special Representatie Ricardo Seitenfus from his position in late 2010 for telling the truth about corruption and NGOs.

In an interview with BBC Brazil shortly before his dismissal, he stated that “The charges of corruption are part of an ideological discussion. There is no corruption, there is the perception of corruption. Haiti has no way of being corrupt because the state has no resources. What can be questioned is how the resources that the NGOs collect, without accounting for them to anyone, are being administered. That is indeed the big question. I make an exception of the work that was done in the emergency, but there cannot be a permanent policy of substituting the NGOs for the state. Haiti is Haiti, it is not [Haiti-NGO]. No country would accept what the Haitians are forced to accept.”

The candid interview by Seitenfus, highlighting that the hypocritical and self-serving policies being enacted in Haiti were widely ignored by the international media earned him the Knight of the Republic Honours, bestowed by the Haitian government. Despite his comments, the issues of hypocrisy, the construction of corruption, and Haitian incompetence continue to provide endless fuel for the presence and justification of self-serving, undemocratic NGOs in Haiti.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Typical: The Economist Fails Caribbean History

June 7, 2012

This August will mark the 50th anniversary of independence of Jamaica and Trinidad, but will also signal the 50th anniversary of the demise of the West Indian Federation. To mark the occasion, on June 2nd, 2012, The Economist published an unforgiving appraisal of the failure of the West Indian Federation and the region in general in an article titled Centrifugal Force: Half a Century of Small Islands with Big Egos. While the article contained some particles of truth, as to be expected from the staunchly neoliberal publication, it also lacked any serious context as to why the Caribbean finds itself in its current situation.

From January 1958 to May 1962, the Federation of the West Indies was a political union which included the islands of Jamaica, Trinidad, Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Montserrat. However in September 1961, Jamaica voted on a referendum which effectively killed the Federation. As the largest and most populous island in the Federation, Jamaica was concerned that it would be bankrolling the other islands, as it would contribute 40 percent of the Federation's revenue.

Once Jamaica backed out of the Federation, Trinidad refused to carry on in the leadership position, and instead offered the smaller islands a place in a unitary state. The proposal was rejected by the smaller islands, who considered the proposal as the creation of a highly unequal relationship, refusing to become other "Tobagos." Thus, the potential Federation of 3 million people was shattered, with the larger islands of Jamaica, Trinidad, and the smaller Caribbean islands—most of them with populations less than 100,000 at the time.

While the West Indian Federation was a political failure, there are few such political unions which have had a smooth history of success, especially in such a short period of time. The creation of the European Union took place over nearly 40 years, with many significant obstacles to integration. Forgetting the United Kingdom’s own hostility to and its ability to “opt out” of elements of the European Union project – not to mention its significant international power, the article hypocritically maintains echoes of an inherent banana republic mentality in the region, stating that “Caribbean politics is centrifugal: it is more fun being prime minister of, say, Dominica or Grenada than an island representative in a federal parliament.”

Nowhere in the article does it take into account that under colonialism, the strategy of divide and rule was the order of the day and in significant ways has permeated many essential elements of today’s Caribbean society and the failure of the Federation. The cultivation of insular national identities (as Jamaicans instead of West Indians for example) through colonialism helped to fuel the division. Racial divides in Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad were established to maintain the order of colonialism and class, not to challenge it. In many ways, these legacies play a massive role in the post-independence infighting between the islands.

However, the article simply goes beyond the failure of the West Indian Federation and takes a jab at the region as a whole. While the global positioning of the Caribbean is less than ideal, and many mistakes have been made—the article leaves out historical context which crippled the region’s brightest leaders.

An example of the lack of context in the article has to deal with a comparison between Jamaica and the Cayman Islands which states that “Fortunes among the islands have changed. The Cayman Islands were a mosquito-ridden dependency of Jamaica in 1962; now, thanks to tourism and offshore banking, they suck in migrants from their larger but less successful neighbour.” Forgetting about Michael Manley, with his introduction of social policies which included equal pay for women, and instituting higher levies on bauxite to finance programs of free education and basic healthcare to the Jamaican people—these “unreasonable demands” were treated as a threat and were met with a barrage of political destabilization and economic sabotage from the United States.

When the dust settled, the Jamaican economy had crashed and Manley had to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund to gut the public sector and any progressive policies. While Jamaica sought to reverse the stranglehold of the imperial powers in the region, the Cayman Islands on the other hand sought to accommodate the march of global capitalism, providing tax havens and daiquiris to many of the same people who had bankrupted Jamaica.

The entire idea of Caribbean integration, like any alignment of previously colonized countries (see Kwame Nkrumah’s United States of Africa or the New International Economic Order)was a dangerous proposal, as it sought to increase the autonomy of Caribbean people at the expense of colonial British political and economic interests. What happened in the case of the Caribbean is that it gained political independence, and little else.

While The Economist might view the Caribbean as a region which “finds doing anything a challenge,” it also lacks any understanding of its history. Existing on the periphery of the global economy, the undeveloped post colonial states of the Caribbean today have little to no control over many of their policies, as neoliberal globalization, economic crisis, the international drug trade and climate change all pose enormous challenges that even global hegemons themselves cannot control.

When leaders in the region made bold decisions to “do something”, they were met with military intervention and economic blackmail—as witnessed by Manley, but also Fidel Castro, Cheddi Jagan, Maurice Bishop, Jean Bertrand Aristide—and programs like the Caribbean Basin Initiative and the War on Drugs.

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of the article is that it ultimately but mistakenly equates political independence with freedom. To conclude, the words of CLR James seems fitting, as he was a brilliant figure who knew a thing or two about independence—the kind the Caribbean currently has, and the kind it currently needs. In a lecture called Federation, James remarked that “Freedom from colonialism is not merely a legal independence, the right to run up a national flag and to compose and sing a national anthem. It is necessary also to break down the economic colonial systems under which the colonial areas have been compelled to live for centuries as hinterlands, sources of raw material, backyards to the industries of the advanced countries. Independence is independence, but when you continue to live in territories which still bear the shape of the old colonial territories, it is extremely difficult to free yourself from the colonial mentality.”