HSG at House of Commons Commemoration of 12 Jan 2010 Earthquake

HSG at House of Commons Commemoration of 12 Jan 2010 Earthquake
May 31, 2011 Christian Wisskirchen

Speech delivered by Phillip Wearne of the HAITI SUPPORT GROUP as part of a House of Commons public meeting on Haiti to mark the first anniversary of the Haitian Earthquake

 10 January 2011, Committee Room 4A

First, I would like to say a big “thank you,” a big, “mesi anpil” to GEORGES WERLEIGH for coming from Haiti and braving our cold physical and political climate.

Georges, when I visited you in November and December in the ruin of your house which you now live outside, I came to appreciate just how much you are living the reality of the Haitian people. It’s a reality you have lived for the past 35 years in your struggle to put the poorest, most marginalized Haitians first through your work for ITECA.

It’s an honour to follow you Georges. And your message, your theme, “Let My People Go” is exactly mine. We really are on the same page of history and I know the right side of history too.

There is another Haitian who should be here, but sadly is absent tonight.  ERAMITHE DELVA was our intended guest for this meeting.

I have to say I am a very poor substitute.

Eramithe is a leader KOFAVIV, a major women’s rights group, at the forefront of the struggle against gender-based violence and now the cholera epidemic ravaging Haiti. There is a profile of KOFAVIV in the May issue of the Haiti Support Group’s Haiti Briefing at the back of the room – please take a copy and learn more about them.

Eramithe was denied a visa to Britain, perhaps another way of shutting Haitians up, of telling them, as President Obama did just hours after the earthquake, to stay where they are.

We are relying on Lord Griffiths to use all his clout and status to make the strongest possible protests to the UK Border Agency on that matter and thank him for his efforts to date. I would also like to thank Anne McConnell who moved heaven and earth to get Eramithe a visa and get her here tonight. Sadly even that was not enough.

In the Haiti Support Group office, on the wall we have a quote from Charles Darwin.

“AN AMERICAN MONKEY AFTER GETTING DRUNK ON BRANDY WOULD NEVER TOUCH IT AGAIN AND THUS IS MUCH WISER THAN MOST MEN.”

Surely that observation must apply to economic development policy in Haiti and those administering it.

I’ve been visiting Haiti occasionally now for nearly 25 years and anyone who thinks development/economic policy has worked there during that time needs their head examined.

Someone said Haiti is a scar on the face of humanity. The Independent on Sunday described it on its front page yesterday as “a global scandal.” Haiti is indeed both. Post earthquake, it is in Paul Farmer’s doctor’s terminology a severe case of “acute on chronic.”

If we look back 20 or 25 years what do we see in Haiti.

Firstly, we see that the VAST MAJORITY OF ITS PEOPLE ARE POORER, MORE DESPERATE, MORE DISENFRANCHISED, and UNHEALTHIER than ever before

Secondly, we see more people LIVING IN SHACKS IN SLUMS and now of course more than one million of them in TENTS, under TARPAULINS, or in shelters made of  BEDSHEETS and TOWELS

Thirdly, we see the depleted state of its land – the basis of the country’s wealth as well as the basis of the sustainence of its people for thousands of years. Today, Haiti’s land is more ERODED, more DEGRADED, more DEBASED than ever before – in a much worse condition than just 25 years ago.

Fourthly, partly as result of that, its people, the hungriest in the Western Hemisphere, are more dependent on food aid and food imports than ever before. Haiti’s ability to feed itself, almost assured a generation ago, has been eradicated with the domestic, RICE, SUGAR, POULTRY AND PORK INDUSTRIES decimated by the virtual elimination of import tariffs and the replacement of Haitian production by heavily-subsidized US production of the same products.

RICE – now the country’s most important staple crop — is the best known example. Haiti has gone from importing 19% of its rice before 1995, when the import tariff that provided some measure of protection to domestic producers was slashed from 35% to 3%, to importing more than 80% of the rice it consumes today.

Haiti has now plummeted to the unenviable position of the fourth most FOOD INSECURE COUNTRY in the world. But it is the countries that it down in the bottom 20 with that is most instructive. Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, all countries with virtually no soil and minimal rainfall.

Haiti, a country which has plenty of both soil and rainfall, is now on a par with states in the Sahara and the Sahel in agricultural production. Haiti, once, a global agricultural powerhouse, easily the biggest sugar and coffee producer in the world, is now an agricultural pauper dependent on food aid and the mercy of world food market price spikes.

So we have a picture of almost complete failure at both a macro and micro economic level – if — and it is a big “if” – the yardstick by which we measure it is the welfare and wellbeing of the vast majority of the Haitian people.

BUT DON’T JUST TAKE MY WORD FOR IT. Take that of one of the KEY ARCHITECT’s of this policy, former US President and now UN Special Envoy to HAITI, Bill Clinton.

In giving testimony to US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March last year, Bill Clinton said the following and yes I quote, word for word. Referring specifically to the slashing of rice import tariffs forced on the Haitian government by his own government during his second term as President of the United States, Bill Clinton said the following:

It has not worked. It may have been good for my farmers in Arkansas but it has not worked. It was a mistake. It was a mistake that I was party to…..I did that.”

 

Pointing at himself, then jabbing his finger into the desk at which he was sitting, he continued:

“I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed these people. Because of what I did. Nobody else.”

It was an impressive mea culpa, but Bill Clinton did not spell out the specific consequences of his policies. So I will.

As the Haiti Support Group (HSG) wrote in the last edition of its Haiti Briefing, No. 65, also available at the back of this room or on our website.

The consequences are of course malnutrition, food dependency and massive vulnerability to world food price spikes, and, as a direct result of that, starvation, disease and death. Precisely the kind of legacy that NGOs, the Haitian government and peasant groups are struggling with everyday; precisely the kind of policy that swelled the slums of Port-au-Prince with the farmers and labourers who were put out of business growing rice in places like the Artibonite Valley after 1995.”

I have just come back from three weeks in Haiti talking to about 30 Civil Society Organisations – CSOs — many part-funded by NGOs in this country and others.

They range from think tanks, like PAPDA, to practical grassroots groups like ITECA, to activist/lobby groups, like FRAKKA on specific issues like housing.

In many cases they are AT THE FOREFRONT of picking up the pieces of the failure of a foreign government/foreign donor directed development/economic policy.

What do THEY WANT? What do Haitians CSOs, their members and leaders, want?

Well not unreasonably they UNIVERSALLY WANT CHANGE. Change that delivers at least a modicum of SOCIAL JUSTICE, that at least reduces the misery, the destitution and the death toll current policies have led to all around them.

Their analysis is precisely Bill Clinton’s and I repeat what it said: “IT HAS NOT WORKED.” The CSOs vary in the way they emphasize it and the means by which they express it. But all these CSOs say it in one way or another.

Take Ricot Jean Pierre of the Haitian Advocacy Platform for Alternative Development, or PAPDA:

It’s as if Haiti has become a corporation in which neo-liberalism is the corporate religion. And as in any corporation the only people with a shareholding and a say are those with money.”

Or Chenet Jean Baptiste, the director of Georges’ organization, ITECA.

“What we have witnessed here in the Haitian countryside over the past 30 years is a social holocaust. The gas chambers have been foreign-imposed trade policies, exploitative land tenure and environmental degredation.”

Our fears in the Haiti Support Group and their fears – the fears of the thinkers and doers in the Haitian CSOs — is that the reconstruction agenda of the Interim Reconstruction Commission that Clinton co-chairs and dominates is simply more of the same — the SAME on STEROIDS.

The steroids of  hundreds of millions, maybe billions, of US dollars.

Reconstruction of a model that had already failed the Haitian people rather than CONSTRUCTION of something different, something the vast majority of them want.

Despite his admission that it has failed, Bill Clinton has made no effort to press for the reversal of the slashing of Haitian food import tariffs to something similar in other Caribbean Basin states as part of an effort to stimulate domestic food production.

Haitians are even more vulnerable now to the next staple food price spike — which the UN says is coming this year — than they were in the spring of 2008, when there were widespread food riots in Haiti.

Instead, Bill Clinton is proceeding full steam ahead with the other key plank of his economic development agenda for Haiti –OFFSHORE ASSEMBLY PLANT PRODUCTION. In Haiti, this is almost all textile production, the most basic stitching, mostly T-shirts and sweatshirts.

The theory is simple.

Material for these textile plants is imported and exported duty-free to Haiti, then assembled by the “competitive advantage” of the lowest-waged workers in the Caribbean Basin with foreign textile firms “incentivised” by duty-free access to the US market.

The practice is equally simple.

One. The minimum wage of 125 gourdes (US$3) a day is often not paid in these plants – 80-90 gourdes a day is common. But even the full miminum wage is itself openly admitted by owners and managers of these plants to not be enough to support an individual, let alone a family.

Two. Offshore assembly plant production produces no tax revenue for the government, the industry is totally reliant on contracts from overseas companies and the quota limits imposed by the U.S., meaning that any growth is totally dependent on external economic policy and conditions.

Three. The development of the assembly plant sector in Haiti is widely seen to have been disappointing even by the industry’s leading boosters. It is now part of a declining sector – duty-free textile exports to the US from the whole Caribbean Basin region have now been contracting for years. Moreover, it has not led to the sort of technology or skills transfer to Haitians that have made the sector a success — by some criteria at least — in other areas such as on the US-Mexican border.

Much of this – the limitations, failures and disappointments of the sector in Haiti — has been recognized in successive World Bank reports. These are littered with phrase such as “disappointing,” failed to produce “a trickle-down effect,” “not developed” etc. etc.

For many Haitian CSOs, the reconstruction agenda in Haiti is now shaping up to be even more disappointing than the relief effort. Building back better – the universal slogan – has become BUILDING BACK BIGGER in the eyes of many Haitian civil society organizations.

These are civil society organisations that are quick to point out that they did not want reconstruction in the first place. “Reconstruction means rebuilding something that was already in place – a state and an economy that was an abject failure,” says Patrick Camille of GARR a group that works with refugees and repatriated Haitians. “Haitians need construction of something completely different, not reconstruction of failure. It’s an important distinction.”

You only have to look at the make up of the raft of reconstruction projects approved by the Interim Reconstruction Commission at its last meeting on December 14th to see what Haitian civil society organizations mean.

A total of $430m in projects were approved at that meeting, 40% of which by value has been allocated to the construction of one massive 150- hectare garment-assembly complex in the north of the country.

This alone is a $174m investment.

Whilst there may well be a role for the assembly plant sector, albeit on properly waged, enforced terms, many CSOs in Haiti believe the emphasis is all wrong.

Haiti is, always was, always will be, an agriculturally-based economy. Agriculture accounts for 50% of the workforce – 28% of GDP. Why does it not receive anything like that amount of commitment in government or Interim Reconstruction Committee budgets?

We in the Haiti Support Group, along with the leadership of ITECA, believe there are four reasons why agriculture should be the priority, not the Cinderella for investment that it is now.

The first is POVERTY ALLEVIATION. Who could be against that in what is easily the poorest country in the western hemisphere? All the foreign donor governments say it’s a priority. Every development economist in the world – right, left, centrist – now accepts that the quickest and most effective means of tackling poverty is rural investment, in particular integrated, agricultural extension investment. And the countryside is where the most concentrated Haitian poverty is. Nearly 90% of the 55% of Haitians who live in the countryside live in poverty. Two-thirds of that total live in what is considered desperate poverty — with incomes well-under the equivalent of one US dollar a day, if indeed, they have any income at all.

The second rational for massive sustained agricultural investment is DECENTRALISATION. This is another key aim of the government’s National Reconstruction Plan – nominally the Interim Reconstruction Committee’s blueprint. This has to be another “no brainer” as Americans would say. Investment in the only serious economic possibility beyond Port-au-Prince is the only real way to counterbalance the magnetic attraction of Haiti’s capital which even the most fervent laissez-faire economist admits is simply not viable with its current population of three million people.

A third rationale of agricultural investment is equally obvious – ENVIRONMENTAL RESTORATION. There are few if any countries in the world as comprehensively environmentally-degraded, deforested, water-shed-eroded, as Haiti. Rural depopulation and of course a complete lack of investment in agriculture, especially small-scale agriculture, is one major reason for this. When the land produces, the producers have every reason to be the best custodians of the environment.

Fourthly, JOBS. No industry is more employment-intensive, especially in the small or medium-size farm sector, as agriculture is. And of course, as repeated agricultural research studies have shown the world over, no farmers are more efficient than the smallest, despite all belief to the contrary.

The year before the earthquake, there was much backslapping and self congratulation when total Haitian government spending on agriculture reached just 4.2% of the total national budget. After the food price shocks of 2008 the World Bank issued another mea culpa saying its own total investment in the sector in the developing world should have averaged about 18% in the proceeding decade. It had, it said, fallen badly short.

By most measures, given its contribution to the wider economy in terms of jobs, environmental preservation, disincentivising migration to the city, let alone in terms of feeding its people, agricultural investment in Haiti should be at or above the World Bank’s figure — 18% or a fifth of national spending.

But agriculture and the lack of investment in it, is part of a much broader picture of a lack of social-oriented, pro-poor, popular investment. The picture covers everything: housing, schools, health care facilities, sanitation, water supply.

All of these sectors have been, at the very least, short-changed in terms of national spending, national priorities for decades. Some would say they have been effectively ignored.

The question here is very simple. WHO ARE YOU SERVING?

Are you serving the multinational corporations who are the main beneficiares of assembly plant investment, North American farmers and exporters who are the main beneficiaries of the devastation of Haitian domestic agriculture, all those foreign firms and countries looking for a slice of the reconstruction pie?

Are you serving the ruthless Haitian kleptocracy, the 20-30 families that have a monopoly stranglehold on the Haitian economy; an elite whose alliance with foreign businesses and donors has made them so omnipotent — and never more so now than when tens of millions of dollars in reconstruction “aid” is flooding into Haiti?

Or are you serving, those who need serving — the Haitians without food, jobs, healthcare or education or even the faintest hope of access to clean water?

I’ve tried to present a very brief overview – to show there are and should be alternatives, alternatives articulated by Haitian CSOs, their leaders and members who live with the reality of the consequences of an externally-imposed, economic/development agenda which, even those who have imposed it, have as I have shown, admit has failed.

THAT IS ONE OF OUR MAIN AIMS IN THE Haiti Support Group TO AMPLIFY THAT ALTERNATIVE VOICE, THE VOICE OF THE GRASSROOTS REALITY NOT THE VOICE OF THE NEO-LIBERAL ECONOMIC THEORIST, THE FOREIGN BUSINESS EXECUTIVE IN WASHINGTON, NEW YORK, BRUSSELS OR EVEN LONDON.

I URGE YOU to join us, learn more – we are learning all the time – act more, speak up more.

After all, it is WE who ARE PAYING FOR THIS POLICY, THIS MISERY, this development FAILURE. IT is OUR TAX POUNDS, EUROS, DOLLARS funding it.

OPPOSITION TO IT IS REALLY GROWING IN HAITI. It’s always had a name – A WONDERFULLY GRAPHIC, DESCRIPTIVE INTERCHANGEABLE NAME in Haitian Kreyol: the American Plan or the Death Plan. “Plan Amerikan se plan l’ammo.” The American Plan is the Death Plan, they say.

As Civil Society Organisations restructure and regroup in Haiti, driven by the desperate need to effect change in the wake of the even greater needs of the population post-earthquake, there is a growing sense amongst many Haitians of the urgency of freeing themselves from this foreign-designed, foreign-power imposed, foreign-economy benefiting model.

Most Haitians think they need to be freed from this foreign domination. At the very least, they believe the model needs completely rebalancing in their, not our, favor.

I close with a quote from William Wilberforce, a remark made a number of times in this House as part of the abolition campaign in the wake of the Haitian revolution that freed the population and abolished slavery in the long thirteen years struggle that ended with the Haitian declaration of independence on January 1 1804.

“You can free them on your terms – or they will free themselves on their terms, as they have already done in Haiti.”

It sounds ridiculous. On the face of it Haitians and their government, or what there is of it, have no negotiating power, no leverage, no say to enable them to break another set of chains, the chains of this neo-liberal, American-sponsored economic plan.

But then neither did their ancestors during the Haitian revolution have any obvious means of leverage at their disposal. It did not stop them changing world history. We need to help them do it again. And we should.

Yes Georges, as you said so forcefully in your presentation: Let My People Go. I, we in the Haiti Support Group, and hopefully many more in this room tonight will join you in letting your people go. Lets do it together. La Union Fait la Force.

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