Ashley Smith analyzes the role of Bill Clinton’s Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission and other institutions that claim to look out for the interests of Haiti’s poor.
AMID THE hoopla over Chelsea Clinton’s wedding at a posh estate north of New York City, there were plenty of toasts in the media to Bill Clinton and the good works he’s performed since leaving the White House.
In particular, Clinton’s role in working with Haiti, both before and after the catastrophic earthquake last January, was singled out.
To the U.S. media, Clinton is a compassionate statesmen, with only the best interests of the Haitian people at heart. Particularly since this year’s quake, he has been viewed as a decisive leader who can “get things done,” in contrast to the country’s ineffective government. Because of his role as co-chair of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), Esquire magazine called Clinton “CEO of a leaderless nation,” the Miami Herald repeatedly refers to him as the “czar of the recovery effort.”
Ordinary Haitians have a different view. They remember Clinton as the man who, while president, demanded Haiti follow the “Plan of Death”–the neoliberal prescriptions of the IMF and World Bank that “structurally adjusted” the Haitian economy in the interests of U.S. business, at the expense of the country’s peasants and poor.
Today, Haitians know Clinton as a man who wields immense power over the country’s future. Esquire‘s description of him as the “CEO of a leaderless nation.” can only be called a political Freudian slip–a CEO, after all, is concerned with profitable investments for shareholders, not meeting people’s needs.
It isn’t even true that Clinton can “get things done.” According to the Washington Post, only 2 percent of the more than $5 billion in aid promised by the U.S. and other countries at a UN donor conference for the first 18 months of reconstruction has materialized. Clinton’s IHRC has dispensed just over $500 million so far–a drop in the bucket compared to the need.
CLINTON HAS promised to “burn up the phone lines” to get world governments to fulfill their pledges. But if and when he manages to get funds for the IHRC, no one should be under any illusion that the reconstruction aid will be used in the interests of Haitian peasants and poor.
The IHRC is a colonial body that will implement the same old neoliberal measures. The U.S. spearheaded setting up the IHRC at an international conference in June. In its original design, the 26-member executive body had a majority of foreigners representing various countries and international financial institutions. Faced with protests from Haitians, the executive was reorganized so that there is now 13 Haitians and 13 foreigners. Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Max Bellerive were selected as co-chairs.
But lest anyone mistakenly think Bellerive and the other 13 Haitians have any control over the commission, the World Bank was chosen as the trustee of the funds. On top of that, Haitian President René Préval was compelled to extend his decree of emergency powers to prevent any Haitians from overruling the IHRC’s power in Haiti.
“Haiti’s true government,” wrote Berthony Depont, editor of the weekly left-wing paper Haiti Liberté, “has just been installed on June 17 with 26 members, all handsomely paid, at the Karibe Convention Center. There are 13 junior Haitians, all too happy to be nominated, but who have no credibility with the Haitian people. Then there are the real members of the Interim Haitian Reconstruction Commission: the foreigners.”
Clinton, whatever his penchant for professing to feel Haitians’ pain, will make sure that the IHRC serves the interests of the U.S. and other powerful governments, in alliance with its allies in Haiti, the wealthy.
As the U.S. Agency for International Development proclaims unapologetically on its Web site: “U.S. foreign assistance has always had the twofold purpose of furthering America’s foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free market, while improving the lives of the citizens of the developing world.”
In fact, the whole history of Haiti proves that “free-market economics” benefits U.S. multinationals and the Haitian elite, while impoverishing the masses–and that “expanding democracy” is restricted by who the U.S. government thinks should hold power.
Of course, not even Bill Clinton will claim that Haiti–the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere–has thrived in the neoliberal era. He’s even admitted that U.S. demands during the 1990s that Haiti end trade restrictions against U.S. agricultural products had a devastating effect on the economy. “We made this devil’s bargain on rice,” Clinton said in March. “And it wasn’t the right thing to do. We should have continued to work to help them be self-sufficient in agriculture.”
In a recent Esquire article, he waxed lyrical about what he hoped to accomplish in Haiti. “Haitians…need the organizational structure and the support to get things done,” he told the magazine. “That’s what I’m trying to do: move things along. I want them to consider all their big alternatives. I want them to consider becoming a wireless country, consider becoming an energy-independent country. I want them to close their landfills, recycle everything and use the rest for energy. Wouldn’t it be great if they became the first wireless nation in the world? They could, I’m telling you, they really could.”
Clearly concerned that such projects could be easily dismissed as fantasies about a society where more than 10 percent of the population lives in refugee camps, he retreated later in the interview. “I don’t want to be naïve,” he told Esquire. “It’s going to be a stretch. It’ll be hard, but I’m excited about it. Enough so that after a couple of heart incidents and being sixty-three years old, I am prepared to spend three years on it. They want the right things for their country.”
However, when you look behind Clinton’s fantasizing and his dilettantish commitment of three whole years to Haiti’s future, the IHRC plan is, in fact, the same old plan–with some public relations bells and whistles–that Clinton and his friend Paul Collier, an Oxford professor and former World Bank official, came up with in 2009.
Collier’s blueprint for Haiti is standard neoliberalism–with emphases on pushing sweatshop industries, reorienting Haiti’s desperate peasants toward producing export crops, developing the country’s beaches and historical sites for tourism, and investing in infrastructure to service all these projects, none of which will benefit workers and the poor.
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CLINTON’S NEOLIBERAL plans for Haiti will work out nicely for the vulture capitalists who have descended on Haiti to exploit the earthquake catastrophe. “Haiti has become the new El Dorado in terms of people seeking opportunities to make a quick buck,” Jean-Robert Lafortune, president of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition, told The Miami Herald.
In March, the International Peace Operations Association held a conference for private security firms like Triple Canopy to contract their services to Haiti’s corporate elite. As Patrick Elie, former minister of defense in Haiti, told the Inter Press Service: “[T]hese guys are like vultures coming to grab the loot over this disaster…[M]oney that might have been injected into the Haitian economy is just going to be grabbed by these companies, and I’m sure they’re not the only mercenary companies.”
Meanwhile, textile manufacturers are lining up to take advantage of IHRC’s commitment to sweatshop labor–and palm off the exploitation of impoverished workers as humanitarianism.
As Time magazine reported, “Gap is planning to roll out its own made-in-Haiti line. The company, which owns Old Navy and is already responsible for 4,000 Haitian textile jobs, may even set up special Haiti sections in some stores. ‘Customers generally don’t care about country of origins,’ says Art Peck, a senior Gap executive. ‘We think they will with Haiti.'”
In the agricultural sector, USAID and Monsanto are collaborating on the misnamed project WINNER–a “benevolent” program that will, in fact, further erode Haiti’s food sovereignty.
Monsanto–in what one of their executives calls a “fabulous Easter gift”–donated 475 tons of hybrid seeds at a cost to itself of $4 million. The seeds are supposed to be distributed to Haitian peasant farmers, but the country’s social movements have long opposed the use of Monsanto’s genetically modified products. Farmers are vowing to burn the Monsanto seeds, which are coated with pesticides and likely not adapted to Haitian diverse soil conditions.
In protest against WINNER, thousands of peasants marched in Hinche on July 4 and burned Monsanto seeds. “With friends like Monsanto and its governmental allies, who needs enemies,” said Benoit Griouard of Union Paysanne. “This so-called donation is an attack on Haitian farmers and the future of their local seeds.” Another leader, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste from the Mouvman Peyizan Papay declared Monsanto’s seeds “a gift of death. It’s an attack on peasant agriculture, on the farmers, on biodiversity, on native seeds, on what remains of our environment in Haiti.”
In perhaps the most bizarre example of disaster capitalism, the Vietnamese Army’s telecommunications company Viettel bought Haiti’s last state-owned company, Teleco, for $59 million.
Before he sold it, Préval fired hundreds of workers and invested precious funds that could have been used for the benefit of Haitians in projects that would make Teleco fit for privatization.
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MEANWHILE, forces that claim to be a voice for the Haitian people against business and governments are getting a piece of the pie in the aftermath of the quake.
With the exception of a few, like Partners in Health, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have used the Haitian tragedy to accumulate vast sums of money that they haven’t spent to aid the Haitian masses. And when they have, their efforts have been haphazard, uncoordinated and unaccountable to the Haitian people or government.
The Philanthropy News Digest reported in May that “roughly $14.9 billion, or $37,000 per displaced family, has been donated for Haiti earthquake relief efforts to date, much of it raised by the American Red Cross, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund and the Clinton Foundation Haiti Fund.
“The Red Cross, for example, has raised $444 million and spent about 25% of that amount; CARE has raised $34.4 million and spent about 16 percent of that; CRS has raised $165 million and spent 8 percent; and the Clinton Bush Fund and the Clinton Foundation have raised $52 million combined, of which 13% has been spent.”
Not only have many NGOs and charities spent only a fraction of what they raised off Haiti, but they also display what the Disaster Accountability Project calls a “shocking lack of transparency.” According to the project’s study of 197 organization that received donations for Haiti, only six provided factual situation reports, while 128 others, had no reports but only emotional appeals and anecdotes.
The Red Cross has come under particular fire. Outraged after a fact-finding trip to Haiti, Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz attacked the Red Cross, saying, “We were actually pretty struck by the fact that we didn’t see the Red Cross anywhere at all.”
After hearing the Red Cross’ claim that it was holding onto the bulk of donations around Haiti for long-term projects, Wasserman Schultz later softened her criticisms. But the truth is that NGOs like the Red Cross shouldn’t be rationing funds in such an emergency; Haitians need money for reconstruction right now.
The stinginess of the NGOs has angered Haitians. Ruth Derilus, who worked for an NGO with a multimillion-dollar budget after the 2008 floods in Gonaïves, told the Nation magazine she would never work for one again because “of all the money they send here, only 10 percent actually makes it to the ground. The rest is spent on foreign experts, hotels, car rentals and hotel conferences.”
Instead of helping to solve the crisis, the NGOs are making money off Haiti and restricting aid. Meanwhile, the U.S. and other powerful governments use the NGOs to effectively bypass the Haitian state, further weakening its role in the country. Thus, the IHRC will only spend 6.6 percent of its budget through the Haitian state–the rest will go to private corporations and NGOs.
This is why many Haitians, as well as others in the Caribbean who have had similar experiences, have denounced the NGOs for undermining Haitian democracy.
After a meeting of the Caribbean Community, Roosevelt Skerrit, the prime minister of Dominica, stated, “With respect to the NGOs operating out of Haiti, we called on the UN secretary general to do all that he can to bring some level of order to the situation, because while we speak about maintaining democracy in Haiti, we can’t at the same time be affording NGOs to undermine the democratic institutions in Haiti…We call on the international institutions and government to cease and desist from putting resources into the NGOs.
From celebrity political figures like Bill Clinton, to the U.S. and other powerful governments, to corporations and NGOs, the forces and institutions that could make a difference in the lives of poor Haitians are putting other interests first. Haitians endured the disaster of the earthquake. Now they are facing the man-made disaster of neoliberalism.