Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haitian History, Phoney Blame, and Taking Responsibility

*Photo from the Associated Press

I've kind of been at a loss when it comes to the devastation we're seeing in Haiti. It instantly reminds me of the 2004 Tsunami that hit several nations along the Indian Ocean terribly, killing over 200,000 people and damaging some places irreparably. Haiti has been one of the poorest countries in the world for decades, and it's population has suffered for so long, in so many different ways, that it's hard to know what they - and those of us who wish to help - should do. Millions of dollars are pouring into charity organizations, the U.S. has sent military personnel, and groups all over the world are offering some form or other of assistance.

People seem good at responding in crises like this, and yet it's often barely enough to get a devastated place back up to speed, let alone the kind of support that might prevent future disasters from occurring. Someone pointed out recently that the earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1989 and the current one in Haiti were of a similar magnitude and location (i.e. both were close enough to major cities to cause a hell of a lot of damage to human infrastructure.) And yet, less than 70 people died in the San Francisco area, whereas over 100,000 are likely dead in Haiti. One of the main reasons for this is the poverty of Haiti, coupled with a tattered government system that has never developed a strong set of building codes to address issues like earthquakes.

Concerning the origin of the current disaster, outrageous comments have been made by people like Pat Robertson, and then presented in a "cleaned up fashion" by establishment commentators like the New York Times' David Brooks, who wrote the following a few days ago:

There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

Earlier in the column, he gave a nod to Haiti's colonial history, and yet basically dismisses it's impact by saying that other former colonial nations are doing much better than Haiti, despite the history.

Mumon posted what I'd consider a healthy, much needed rebuttal to this kind of thinking on his blog Notes in Samsara. Quoting from an article from The Guardian newspaper, he cites the following:

As Stephen Keppel of the Economist Intelligence Unit puts it, Haiti's revolution may have brought it independence but it also "ended up destroying the country's infrastructure and most of its plantations. It wasn't the best of starts for a fledgling republic." Moreover, in exchange for diplomatic recognition from France, the new republic was forced to pay enormous reparations: some 150m francs, in gold. It was an immense sum, and even reduced by more than half in 1830, far more than Haiti could afford.

"The long and the short of it is that Haiti was paying reparations to France from 1825 until 1947," says Von Tunzelmann. "To come up with the money, it took out huge loans from American, German and French banks, at exorbitant rates of interest. By 1900, Haiti was spending about 80% of its national budget on loan repayments. It ­completely wrecked their economy. By the time the original reparations and interest were paid off, the place was basically destitute and trapped in a ­spiral of debt. Plus, a succession of leaders had more or less given up on trying to resolve Haiti's problems, and started looting it instead."

It's obscene that the slaves and their descendants were forced to pay "reparations" to their abusers.

It's obscene that this has never been redressed.

It's time for France (and the U.S. too) to step up and help make Haiti whole, after the rebuilding is done.

Send charity, request justice.

I'd like to second Mumon's call for more than just charity, while at the same time cautioning leaders, and any of us not from Haiti, to be careful about "rebuilding narratives." What is it that the people in Haiti need? What do they desire collectively? How can their nation, which has struggled for so long, be healthy again? I certainly don't know, and I'd rather the Haitian people themselves lead the way - the rest of the world provides whatever support we can, and the Haitian people lead the way.

The first thing we can do, besides giving the crisis support already occurring, is to push for wealthy nations who prospered from colonialism for two, three, four hundred years, to put an end to any debt schemes currently hog-tieing the Haitian government (IMF, World Bank, are you listening?), and to offer enough tangible financial and material support without repayment strings or sweetheart corporate deal strings to get the country rebuilt in the ways the Haitian people want it to be rebuilt.

The months and years to come will be very challenging for Haiti, and I'm certain that there will be a lot of arguing and disagreement about what needs to be done, both from within the country and without. But I truly believe that any approach which fails to place the people intimately involved at the center is, in the end, a failed approach.

Peace and blessings to all sentient beings suffering in Haiti.

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