Friday, February 12, 2010

Haiti and "Poor People Frames"

One month later, Haiti still lands on the front pages of newspapers and news reports, but the flood of the focus is moving on and soon Haiti will be just another place in the world dealing with devastation. This article on the blog Racialicious asks us in wealthy nations to not only not forget about Haiti, but to use the situation there as a spring board for reconsidering the whole structure of globalization itself.

Shannon Joyce Prince, the author of the article, writes:

My former Ghanian boyfriend once asked, “How is it possible for the formerly colonized nations to be in debt to the colonizers? How can we owe those who stole resources from us?”

It's clear that one of the major problems for poor nations around the world is debt to world powers like the U.S., China, France, and Britain. But beyond debt is the ways in which people in wealthy nations view those from economically poor nations.

Imagine if, after the Holocaust, the victims who were used as slave labor in concentration camps had been forced to pay reparations to the Nazis – that the Nazis had convinced the world that they were legitimately owed because they had lost their human property. Imagine if those victims’ peoples were impoverished for the next century and a half paying back those who had enslaved and killed them. Then imagine if their maimed and miserable communities were trapped in an endless cycle of debt and poverty as a result. No one would tolerate such a crime – the punishment of slaves and their descendants for being enslaved and the continued enrichment of their enslavers and their descendants – when the majority of the victims are white. But for Haiti and throughout the “Third World,” such crimes are perfectly acceptable. I believe that Holocaust victims deserve all the respect and compassion in the world – so, too, do other victims of slavery and genocide.

I will add that colonization hasn't been only a white over brown/black people issue. Powerhouse Asian nations like China and Japan, where much of the Buddhist practice in the Americans originated, have histories of colonizing and victimizing other Asian peoples - and one might consider China's current corporate "ventures" in Africa to be a continuation of colonization in a modern, globalized fashion. But there is no denying the white over black/brown narrative and the centuries of damage tied to it.

When non-white individuals in non-white countries force other individuals into “debt bondage,” the practice is recognized as an ethically indefensible form of slavery. When First World governments, banks, and organizations do the same thing – on an even greater scale – to poor nations, the practice is considered acceptable – and is even construed as “aid.”

This paragraph might piss some people off, and I'm fine with that. I can imagine there are counter examples out there, but really, who gives a damn about defensive posturing? Wouldn't it be more helpful to see that there's truth hanging out in the above statement, and that truth implicates what many of us in wealthy nations view as "the way to help." Indeed, what we often say is "compassion."

As I mentioned in my previous essay, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are each loaning Haiti 100 million dollars, so despite all the talk going on about debt forgiveness, the cycle of debt is just continuing. It took Haiti a century and a half to pay 60 million francs in reparations to France. How many centuries will it take Haiti to pay back 200 million dollars?

This isn't just about history, it's about now. Right now.

I remember in 2000, there was a campaign to suspend this kind of debt production. I also remember that same year that Catholic Pope John Paul made a famous in which he apologized for all kinds of misdeeds done by the Church throughout it's history. It was a big, breezy affair, complete with pangs of guilt for mistreatment of Jewish people in several centuries, and heartfelt sadness for violating "the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and [for showing] contempt for their cultures and religious traditions." Even though I knew the Church itself wasn't going to change anytime soon, I was moved by John Paul's willingness to admit to some of the wrongs done historically, and to offer to world an olive branch at a time when religious conflict was terribly, terribly high.

However, one of the problems with offers coming from the Catholic Church in Rome is the same problem with offers coming wealthy nations and their apendages: the view of superiority, as well as the mechanisms that maintain that view, are never overturned and abandoned. Just as the Catholic Church still pronounces it's teachings as the only highest truth, so to do wealthy nations and their apendages (World Bank, IMF, etc.) still consider themselves the best and only determiners of economic, and global policy in general.

Too often the media shows us images of children starving until they’re merely skin and bones or corrupt Third World dictators without showing us the First World’s hand in the creation of both. That an earthquake broke the country of Haiti is a terrible tragedy. If that earthquake doesn’t also shatter the way we think of the First and Third Worlds, that tragedy will be redoubled.

I challenge you to look beyond the horror-filled images and quick and easy commentaries. Haiti isn't that far away really. It's right inside of you and I, just as we are right inside of every Haitian. There's no way, in this tiny world, to not be connected deeply.

And one final note from Ms. Prince:

P.S. Please consider donating to Partners in Health’s “Stand with Haiti” campaign The organization has been serving Haiti since the 1980s, and their commitment and skill in extending healthcare as well as justice and dignity to Haitians is unparalleled.

For those of us who have a few dollars and are rightfully eschewing the obvious "aid groups, here's an alternative.

1 comment:

Algernon said...

No rancor with this reader. It is important to speak truthfully and plainly about how human beings use power over one another, and this is what is happening.

There is a strange taboo against talking honestly about conquest and colonization, as it is still practiced by -- well, us.