Disasters for the Haitian Poor

Community Organizations International International

r497812_2615091New Orleans The Haitian non-relief story is heartbreaking:  unknown, unnamed victims in mass graves and $100 per day picking up dead bodies in the street.  What can we make of the future from this catastrophe just off our shores?

A Smith College professor named Kevin Rozario with a book about disasters in his resume actually made good sense of some of the future issues in the Wall Street Journal of all places this morning.  His piece first caught my attention by realistically noting that there is “no silver lining” from a disaster of this proportion.

In truth, the dominant narrative of disasters as instruments of progress has always been contested. Disasters have often been truly disastrous for the poor. The emergency conditions introduced by calamity have often encouraged a disregard for the rights of citizens; a fervent commitment to economic development often discouraged attention to social costs.

He also seems to understand that the Katrina devastation of New Orleans and the non-recovery here have rewritten even his earlier book, but certainly any rosy glow arguments that disasters are development bonuses.

For the most part, the social and environmental costs of development have been rendered invisible by dominant articulations of American progress. But after Hurricane Katrina, this buried history surfaced with a vengeance. The timing is key here. In an age of energy crises, terrorist attacks, global warming and global financial instability, progress no longer seems quite so inevitable. Disasters increasingly present themselves as manifestations of a catastrophic world rather than as instruments of improvement.

The underlying poverty, whether in New Orleans or Port du Prince, is the hard place from which there is no exile when confronting the future.

But what are the lessons of the disaster? It is becoming clear that a major contributing factor was poverty. The earth moves; that much is unchanging. But a disaster on this scale only happens when plates shift underneath a city with poorly constructed buildings, failing infrastructure and inadequate social services. Poverty played a central role here. The worst damage and suffering occurred in the shanties that cling precariously to the city’s hills. Most Haitians earn no more than $1 per day; there is widespread unemployment, hunger and illiteracy. A desperate need for fuel has led to massive cutting of trees that inhibit floods and bind the soil together to prevent landslides.

Rozario gets the fact that there is a problem in our contentious world in how to “help Haiti.”  In New Orleans the fight, particularly in the early years after Katrina and to some degree still is over the future direction of the city and how the levers of power, people, and profit will be synchronized in any equitable way.

This disaster, like all disasters, then poses a question. What is the lesson here? What is the opportunity? Unsurprisingly, there is little agreement in our polarized world. One argument holds that the solution to both the poverty and the disaster is integration into world markets: more International Monetary Fund loans and structural adjustments. On the day after the earthquake, James Roberts, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, laid out an expansive vision of the prospect this disaster presented for a “bold and decisive” U.S. intervention to impose the democratic and economic reforms that would turn Haiti into a stable state and trading partner. Disaster, once again, figures as agent of progress.

At the same time, critics of neo-liberalism are arguing that the disaster was the result of capitalist development, as mandated by the international community. The country—impoverished over the centuries by slavery, the extraction of its resources to imperial metropolises, international occupations, dictatorships—has been dependent on IMF loans since the 1980s, but these have come with strings attached. Haiti, once self-sufficient in rice production, was forced to remove barriers to heavily subsidized American rice. This led to the decimation of local farming and the migration of country-dwellers to the city in search of work, contributing to overcrowding in Port-au-Prince. With recent escalating world food prices, Haitians, unable to grow their own food, have sunk deeper into poverty, locked into a cycle of dependency that contributed to the scale of the destruction and loss of life in the wake of the earthquake.

Hmmm….did they know what you were writing in the Journal, professor?  The IMF as solution turns needs to be reminded that there is blood on the streets flowing directly from IMF policies!

And in a final surprise the obvious answer, whether or not the masters of the universe like it or not is actually thinking about what is “best for Haiti,” which may mean including Haitians in finding the real answers here. That is past the Professor’s charge it seems, but it should be central in our discussions about the future for Haiti, that we start learning to listen.

Perhaps this is a time to listen to Voltaire. First, the obligation to help the victims. Then, time to study, to learn, to discover the particulars of history, to ponder which type of development is best for Haiti.

Haitians should speak first, one they are able, and the rest should follow from that point forward.