Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti's Poverty is Not Accidental [UPDATE]

[UPDATE]: EPIC rebuttal to all the context-free media coverage determined to cast Haitians as an undifferentiated mass.

Also, while I appreciate President Obama's swift response to the earthquake crisis, I take serious issue with tapping George W. Bush - the man who helped to remove Haiti's democratically-elected president in 2004 - to help with relief efforts. To quote you, Mr. President, this is a boneheaded move.

Let's start with the basics. Haiti has been repeatedly referred to as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. This is true, but I need people to understand that those circumstances are not accidental, or bad luck, or the result of a pact with the devil (sorry Pat Robertson). As Alternet columnist Carl Lindskoog writes, Haiti didn't become a poor nation on its own. It had help from many areas, in particular France and the United States.

It may startle news-hungry Americans to learn that these conditions the American media correctly attributes to magnifying the impact of this tremendous disaster were largely the product of American policies and an American-led development model.

From 1957-1971 Haitians lived under the dark shadow of "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a brutal dictator who enjoyed U.S. backing because he was seen by Americans as a reliable anti-Communist. After his death, Duvalier's son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" became President-for-life at the age of 19 and he ruled Haiti until he was finally overthrown in 1986. It was in the 1970s and 1980s that Baby Doc and the United States government and business community worked together to put Haiti and Haiti's capitol city on track to become what it was on January 12, 2010.

After the coronation of Baby Doc, American planners inside and outside the U.S. government initiated their plan to transform Haiti into the "Taiwan of the Caribbean." This small, poor country situated conveniently close to the United States was instructed to abandon its agricultural past and develop a robust, export-oriented manufacturing sector. This, Duvalier and his allies were told, was the way toward modernization and economic development.

That's the history. How was Haiti doing before the devastating 7.0 earthquake? Well, most of the country was still trying to pick up the pieces from the four hurricanes that blasted the island in 2008. And there was supposedly massive investment flowing into the country. So why was it still in such a precarious position economically and with regard to infrastructure? Author and Haiti activist Tracy Kidder explains it well in this NY Times op-ed:

Hence the current state of affairs: at least 10,000 private organizations perform supposedly humanitarian missions in Haiti, yet it remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Some of the money that private aid organizations rely on comes from the United States government, which has insisted that a great deal of the aid return to American pockets — a larger percentage than that of any other industrialized country.

But that is only part of the problem. In the arena of international aid, a great many efforts, past and present, appear to have been doomed from the start. There are the many projects that seem designed to serve not impoverished Haitians but the interests of the people administering the projects. Most important, a lot of organizations seem to be unable — and some appear to be unwilling — to create partnerships with each other or, and this is crucial, with the public sector of the society they’re supposed to serve.

I think the outpouring of donations from people all over the world is amazing and heartening. But I also think it's crucial to understand how Haiti came to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It didn't just happen. Things like that do not just happen. They are caused. If we really want to make sure countries like Haiti and communities in our own country are not left similarly vulnerable, we need to start working toward true economic and social justice for all.


  1. GREAT post and so, so true. Why aren't you a chief correspondent for The Nation already?!

  2. Word.

    Haiti was one of the most lucrative of France's colonies. So was definitely not always poor. I hope the people that are paying attention now continue to do so down the road when help is still needed. The relief effort now will still leave Haiti 10 steps behind where she was before the earthquake

  3. Word

    Haiti was the Pearl of the Antilles, France's cash cow. I hope those who care about Haiti this week remember her in a couple of years time when it is clear that the relief aid now still leaves her 10 steps behind where she was before the earthquake