COHA Readership Responds to Haiti Analysis

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Below, COHA is reprinting several letters that it recently received in response to its research finding issued on February 9, 2009, “‘The Rock in the Sun’: Haiti’s Préval Pleads For the U.S. and Rest of the World to End Global Negligence Towards Latin America’s Poorest Country.” This document was authored by COHA Research Associate David Felson. The first letter which we are running here was received from Reed Lindsay, who served a distinguished stint as a COHA Research Fellow and then became a freelance journalist, writing a number of articles on various Latin American issues for a string of top-flight U.S. dailies.

The second letter was received from Stanley Lucas. In all candor, COHA repeatedly in the past has singled out Mr. Lucas as a person who has done no great service to his fellow Haitians, and as the leader of an extremely controversial project that was awarded funding by the International Republican Institute, by way of the National Endowment for Democracy, so antagonized Haitians on the island, that he had to flee the country to protect his own personal security. COHA first addressed Lucas’ reputation in a 2004 article, and revisited his case last year. His contribution to the current debate can be found below.

– COHA Staff


February 18, 2009

Dear COHA Colleagues,

Permit me to react to your February 9, 2009 piece on Haiti, “‘The Rock in the Sun’: Haiti’s Préval Pleads For the U.S. and Rest of the World to End Global Negligence Towards Latin America’s Poorest Country.”

As seen from the ground here, I feel that you might have missed the point. Haiti is not neglected. On the contrary, Canada gives more aid to Haiti than any other country in the world except Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the United States government has just built a 70 million dollar embassy (it is one of the largest buildings in the country) and USAID spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year in aid projects. And of course there is a UN peacekeeping mission, called Minustah, operating on a budget that exceeds 500 million dollars a year.

The real question is whether any of this “assistance” from the international community is actually helping Haiti. Some things to consider…

1. Since former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster in February 2004, the international community has made “security” its top priority. The 500 million dollars spent on UN troops and tanks, and the resources devoted to rooting out gangs and bolstering the police force, was justified under the premise that once “security” was achieved, investment would come pouring in and development would begin to flourish. But security for whom? In my neighborhood, a poor one in Port-au-Prince where I have lived for more than four years, I have never felt insecure. The countryside is nearly crime-free and has been free from armed groups since 2005. And even Port-au-Prince is relatively safe compared to many Latin American cities. UN statistics indicate that Haiti’s murder rate may be lower than that of the United States. (Of course, the tiny elite and a handful of foreigners, whose wealth make them a target for kidnapping, do not feel so safe.) Most Haitians despise the UN troops – not so much because they have shot indiscriminately at them, killing innocent civilians, nor because they have stood by as gangs have massacred women and children, nor even because some UN peacekeepers have raped Haitian women and girls as young as 15. The main cause of resentment is that every day Haitians are reminded of how the UN is spending exorbitant amount of moneys (What housing crisis? Thanks in large part to Minustah, apartments in Port-au-Prince can go for $2,000 a month), while doing nothing to help the country. Peacekeepers sit around in their tanks all day, while bureaucrats wine and dine in luxurious French restaurants, rarely entering so-called “red zones” (that is, the slums, where most of the population lives). Incidentally, US embassy employees earn a 20 percent “danger pay” bonus and another 25 percent on top of their salary for living in a “hardship” country. Most Haitians do not know exactly how much the UN is spending here (the UN’s budget is approximately the same as the government’s), but they know it is a lot. And they also know that since the UN came to Haiti, prices have skyrocketed, the economy has stagnated and much-promised development has never materialized.

2. At the root of Haiti’s problems is the fact that the country produces almost nothing and the economy stays afloat thanks to remittances sent from Haitians living in the US, Canada and France. Thirty years ago, Haiti was not an economic powerhouse, but at least it could feed itself. What little national production Haiti could muster was smashed in 1986, when a US-backed military regime took power from Jean-Claude Duvalier and began imposing neoliberal economic policies. Tariffs were slashed and imports flooded the country while subsidies to farmers were removed. National production was crushed and the country has become completely dependent on food imports – the primary reason behind the massive protests that ousted the then prime minister in April 2008. Yet the international community has been uninterested in helping Haiti regain some degree of food sovereignty. Food donations still pour in while the agricultural infrastructure continues to receive a tiny fraction of the aid that is sent to Haiti.

3. Some aid experts estimate that as little as 10 to 20 percent of all aid from the Canadian and US governments is actually spent on the intended beneficiaries. Shockingly, 80-90 percent of this assistance is eaten up by the bureaucracies of aid agencies and NGOs. The US government refuses to give aid to the Haitian government directly because of corruption and instead carries out aid programs through these NGOs. This privatized aid system is legal, but no less corrupt – “country directors” of NGOs and foreign consultants earn six-figure salaries. Meanwhile, government offices are hopelessly understaffed and are largely unable to attract qualified personnel – most work in middle management for NGOs, which are seen as a stepping stone for professionals seeking to get a visa for the United States and Canada so they can leave Haiti permanently.

4. In contrast, the Cuban government has provided a model of foreign aid that has been almost entirely ignored by the media. Hundreds of Cuban doctors have become the backbone of the public health care system in Haiti. More importantly, every year the Cuban government sends more than a hundred young Haitians mainly from the poor countryside to Cuba to study medicine. Upon graduating, they return to Haiti with a five-year commitment to work in public clinics in the communities they grew up in. The program is brain drain in reverse. Meanwhile, Cuba is helping the Haitian government launch a nationwide literacy program. For its part, the Venezuelan government is helping the Haitian state regain control of its energy sector. It has funded the construction of three power plants, and is planning the construction of an oil refinery. The contrast with aid from the United States and Canada, whose programs often undermine Haiti’s public institutions, is striking.

5. While Cuba is training doctors, Canada and the United States are sucking them away. Every year, thousands of qualified professionals, desperately needed to help Haiti climb out of its misery, abandon their country for jobs in New York or Montreal. Of course, they cannot be blamed. But there is no reason the US and Canadian governments could not implement policies, as Cuba has done, that could encourage young Haitian professionals to stay in their country or return there after furthering their education.

Reed Lindsay, a former COHA research fellow, is a freelance journalist and full time resident of Haiti, where he supports a grassroots social movement called SODA ( whose members are young volunteers in the slums of Port-au-Prince who run four free schools that serve more than 400 children as well as a literacy program.


February 11, 2009

I certainly second much of the viewpoint that is expressed in this article and appreciate that the author knows the problems and suffering of the country so well. It is indeed important to get the word out more broadly because as the author points out, donors often act on whims and fads.

On the challenges with development assistance, the author states: “Giving a bag of rice to a starving family in Port-au-Prince will only nourish it for a definite period of time. Instead, teaching them farming methods for crops that are then grown on the barren land of Haiti is far more effective as it is practical.” This harkens back to the old adage of giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish.

What I’m less clear on then is how this argument fits into his admonishment of the US Government for not simply giving money directly to the Haitian government? In forty years, there hasn’t been a Haitian government that has been competent or trustworthy enough for such an act. Haitian leaders have a track record of lining their own pockets and fleeing with enormous sums of state money. Duvalier 800 million in 14 years, Aristide 350 million in nine years.

The author then declares that Preval in 2006 and Aristide in 2001 were democratically elected; and therefore the US Government should give them money. While one can certainly take issue with whether or not they were in fact elected in a free and fair manner, the real issue is that neither of them have any track record of making improvements in the country. Preval has been focused on a constitutional amendment that bears no relation to the crisis at hand. Rioting, starving people had to refocus his attention, and still, we have no solutions. Forget about solutions even – there is no articulated plan to address this crisis. Just because a government was elected, does not mean it knows how to be fiscally responsible.

Finally, a point that I’ve made before bears repeating: Haiti’s problems are not for the US to fix. The world is in the throes of an economic crisis. The US is facing its worst economic downturn of our life times. And at this extraordinary moment, Preval’s only idea was to go to the US government and ask for money. I wonder what would have happened had he gone in with a strategy about how to address the issues? With a list of critical projects that needed some investment? With a clear list of priorities and proposals for partnerships with the US government? Could he have presented the Administration with some “wins”? For example, investing in education in a few provinces would improve literacy by x%? Preval’s approach was naive and showed a complete lack of understanding of the global situation.

Haiti’s government needs to stop its constant focus on consolidating power and attempting to shame the US government into getting involved in domestic political and economic messes. Haiti’s government needs to come up with some plans for bettering the country. Or we’re going to continually be known as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Stanley Lucas