Monday, July 12, 2010

The international community's responsibility to Haiti

The international community's responsibility to Haiti

By Michael Deibert

The Guardian

12 July 2010

(Please read the original article here)

It is a gloomy anniversary: the six-month mark since the earthquake that levelled vast swaths of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, and surrounding towns, killing well over 200,000 people.

Though the earthquake was promiscuously destructive, killing the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, those who still remain encamped in sprawling tent cities lashed by tropical rains in and around the capital now represent the lowest and most disempowered strata of Haitian society. They are the Haitians who, for generations, have fled the poverty of the countryside to its largest city in search of jobs that were not there and where only further struggle awaited them.

At a time when only 2% of a promised $5.3bn (£3.5bn) in reconstruction aid has materialised and an equally small amount of rubble has been removed, it is worth pausing to remember how economic policy in a very real way helped drive Haitians off their land and into the labyrinthine slums of Port-au-Prince, where so many of them died.

From the 1940s, when the United States sponsored a half-baked attempt to cultivate rubber in Haiti, to the early 1980s, when 1.2m creole pigs were destroyed in a US-Canadian funded programme to prevent the spread of swine fever, the results were largely the same. Life for Haiti's rural poor got worse.

In 1995, an economic adjustment plan mandated by the International Monetary Fund implemented by the government of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide cut tariffs on rice imports to Haiti from 35% to 3%. Haiti, which for many years had produced low-cost, inexpensive rice for domestic consumption, effectively lost the ability to do so.

And so the heirs of patriotic leaders such as Toussaint L'Ouverture and Charlemagne Péralte ("Les enfants du héros", as the Haitian writer Lyonel Trouillot called them) continued to flood into Port-au-Prince. And six months ago, on a Tuesday afternoon, more of them died there than the mind can really grasp.

Almost surreally, with an estimated 1.5 million Haitians still homeless, presidential and legislative elections are set to be held on 28 November. They will be presided over by an electoral council faced with conducting a legitimate ballot in a country where hundreds of thousands of voters have either been killed or displaced, and during which its own headquarters were destroyed.

Before the earthquake, Haiti had seen a steady, if gradual, improvement in its fortunes. Attracting modest levels of foreign investment and maintaining robust diplomatic relations with neighbours as divergent as the United States, Cuba and Venezuela, the county also enjoyed a more or less extended period of political calm, reinforced by a 10,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission (a mission that also suffered grievously that January day).

The wantonly murderous security services and armed civilian bands of regimes past dissipated as, whatever his other faults, President René Préval marked a change in at least this aspect from the litany of rancid despots who have actively victimised the Haitian populace without cease since colonial times.

With no clear successor to Préval, and a series of badly factionalised micro-parties with little popular support, Haitians now face yawning uncertainty. While elections are a favoured means of the international community to point to progress in countries as wracked by poverty and political unrest as Haiti, most Haitians will tell a visitor that such exercises will count for little if not matched by a commitment to changing the destructive dynamic of rural disintegration and urban migration that has taken hold in recent years.

After the earthquake, the Haitian government produced a preliminary damage and needs assessment that envisioned a decentralisation of the Haitian state. To this date, little has come of this promise. A body set up to manage reconstruction funds chaired by Préval's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, and former US president Bill Clinton – a man with a sometimes worrisomely shaky grasp of Haiti's history – has succeeded in drawing pledges of aid but little in concrete results.

It is important on this date, with so many of Haiti's citizens to mourn and so many still waiting for assistance in conditions that can only be characterised as an affront to humanity, that we in the international community not forget our past follies in Haiti.

Before another six months pass, foreign governments, international agencies and non-governmental organisations must quickly and decisively work with Haitians, both urban and rural, on issues such as resettlement, reforestation and agrarian reform, to help them build a decent country out of the rubble of the broken state that came before.

Among all the Haitians I've met in my travels around Haiti, since my first visit there in 1997, a decent country is all most have ever asked for.

Michael Deibert is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University and the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti. His blog can be read at


Ljubica & Adam said...

I agree that the international community has a responsibility to Haiti. But it seems like there has been more talk than action. I am an American who is motivated to help. I don't believe that money alone is the right solution because it seem like the money we Americans donate is going into other American's pockets. And I am not sure how it would be distributed among Haitians anyway. Additionally America has had its own disaster, not a natural one, but an economic one. Especially as a recent college graduate I do not have the means to simply throw money at the problem, nor do I believe that that is the most effective solution to any problem.
As an individual, I can't change the lack of action on the part of our government, and can't give money, certainly no substantial amount. What I do have is time, and a sincere desire to help. I have read other blogs that say don't come to Haiti because in essence you will add to the problem. There are enough Haitians to do the physical labor, like moving the rubble or building houses. And you would be taking away potential jobs from locals. Which made me think, ok so they need community organizers? On the other hand I saw an interview on "Democracy Now" with a Hatian democracy activist who was saying that Hatians can come up with their own solutions--or basically that they don't need outsiders to come in and think for them. Which seems legitimate.

So with all of that in mind I am lost. What can someone like me do?

Michael Deibert said...

Hello there, and thanks for your comment, and your interest in Haiti.

There are some terrific grassroots organizations in Haiti that interested people in the United States can supported in a variety of ways, not only through donations, but through volunteering in Haiti or the United States or simply spreading the word about the very important work they do.

Some of those that immediately come to mind are:

Fondasyon Kole Zepòl (Fonkoze), a terrific mico-credit body:

Kay Famn, an important feminist organization: (

Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (FOKAL), an organization conceived to support sectors in Haitian society most likely to bring about social change and which has created a network of over 50 community libraries throughout Haiti, a debate programme for young people, and an initiative to supply running water to the nearly 80 percent of Haitians who don’t have regular access to it:

The Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH) is Haiti's foremost human rights organization:

One other note: In my experience I would listen to Democracy Now's reportage on Haiti issues with a highly skeptical ear, as I have often found it to be more based on the host's rather moldy ideological prejudices than on any time actually spent on the ground in Haiti reporting among Haitians. If you read French, I think better alternatives for genuinely comprehensive Haiti coverage exist with the Haitian news service AlterPresse ( or the website of the Port-au-Prince radio station Radio Kiskeya ( My book on Haiti might also be a useful primer on relatively recent (1994-2004) Haitian history.

Thanks again for your interest. Dear Haiti needs all the friends she can get.


Michael Deibert said...
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Michael Deibert said...
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