Jan 17, 2013 - Issue 500

The Debt Owed to Haiti

By Nia Imara, PhD

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Three years after the unprecedented earthquake in Haiti that extinguished at least 300,000 lives and upended millions more, the world is asking the same questions that were posed six months, one year, and two years after January 12, 2010. Why, after three years, is there so little evidence of reconstruction? Hundreds of thousands of homes and more than one thousand schools were destroyed on January 12, 2010; given that the world pledged nearly $10 billion in aid, why has there been hardly any construction of permanent housing or new schools? Three years later, why do more than 350,000 Haitians remain homeless, living in tent camps, while foreign companies are opening new, multimillion-dollar, luxury hotels?

The simple answer to these questions is twofold. Amongst those with the power and resources to effect change in Haiti, there is not the will to rebuild the country in a genuinely democratic and inclusive fashion. Secondly, efforts to bring about an authentic reconstruction will be stunted, as long as Haiti - ruled by a government not chosen by the people - continues to be under military occupation.

A recent report in the New York Times gives an account of the money contributed by the world to assist the earthquake victims and to help rebuild Haiti and, in doing so, provides a rather mild criticism of the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) there.[1] As estimated by the Times, of $7.5 billion in aid that has thus far been disbursed, half has gone to temporary relief aid, including temporary shelters (i.e., tents), clinics, schools, and emergency food relief. Of the remaining half, a small fraction has been allotted for actual reconstruction.

Most earthquake survivors, however, have yet to benefit from this aid in any meaningful or lasting way. The majority of money has gone to foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private contractors, for whom the earthquake has proved to be tremendously profitable. When these groups spend their collected money, a significant percentage is invariably sucked into administrative costs before it ever reaches the Haitians for whom it was ostensibly intended. Oxfam, for instance, has spent more than one third of its $96 million budget (over a two year period) on management costs. Additionally, many Haitians have expressed outrage at how such NGOs and private contractors have driven up the cost of living since the earthquake: while their employees rent expensive apartments, drive around in brand new cars, and shop at grocery stores that most Haitians cannot afford, a Haitian family in Port-Au-Prince is considered lucky if it can have at least one meal a day.

A report by the Center for Global Development corroborates the assessment of the New York Times that the reconstruction of Haiti’s infrastructure has been lethargic, largely because the recipients of aid money have, more often than not, been non-Haitian groups that have not prioritized actual reconstruction.[2] The Center for Global Development report, less conservative than the Times estimate, discloses that $9.04 billion in aid has been disbursed since 2010, and that the majority has gone back to the donors, foreign NGOs, private contractors, and the United Nations.

The Lack of Will 

For all the data provided in the New York Times and the Center for Global Development reports, they ultimately miss the fundamental reasons for why so little has improved in Haiti since the quake. In her Times article, Deborah Sontag attributes the virtual lack of reconstruction to the immensity of the undertaking; to the over-ambitiousness of donors and aid organizations; to the “weakness and volatility” of the Haitian government. She reports on how millions of dollars have been siphoned by planning meetings that never produce tangible results, and how the handful of projects that were finally initiated - such as the American-subsidized construction of 750 houses in Caracol - were abandoned even before half-complete.

But to describe the reconstruction efforts of foreign organizations and the Haitian government as ambitious and “idealistic” must seem absurd to the homeless of Port-Au-Prince who have watched luxury hotels sprout up on the hills of Petionville. This past December, after major setbacks three years ago, the Royal Oasis Hotel opened its doors onto 128 rooms that cost more per night than most Haitians make in a year. The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund invested $2 million in the hotel, which - though its construction began before the 2010 earthquake - reveals how expeditiously progress and profits can be attained in Haiti, if only there is the will. Best Western Premier is also scheduled to open a new hotel in Petionville, and the International Red Cross is said to be considering the building of a hotel on $10.5 million worth of land it purchased with donations raised for quake recovery. Meanwhile, according to the New York Times article, the same Red Cross is sitting on more than $500 million in donations.

What Sontag refers to as the “weakness and volatility” of the Haitian government, a great many Haitians see as outright deceit and illegitimacy. In September, October, and November 2012, Haitians throughout the country staged demonstrations to protest the repressive, corrupt administration of President Michel Martelly, who ascended to power a year after the quake in spite of fraudulent elections. Dominican journalist Nuria Piera exposed Martelly for accepting $2.6 million in bribes since the first round of presidential elections in 2010. And Haitian Senator Moise Jean-Charles recently reproached him for getting a $20,000 per diem - paid by the Haitian government - on his frequent trips abroad. As a solution to the reconstruction stalemate, the Center for Global Development report recommends that donors be more supportive of the needs and priorities of the Haitian government. But similar to the foreign donors and organizations that have attempted to reconstruct Haiti without seeking much input from Haitians themselves, these recommendations fail to see that the priorities of Martelly and his supporters have never been those of the majority of the Haitian people.

Fox Guarding the Henhouse

On each anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, the U.S. media have remarked on the slow progress of reconstruction. They have generally attributed America and the world’s failure to live up to their promises to two interrelated causes: the dysfunction of the Haitian government and the obstacles met when trying to work with Haitian leadership. But this perspective misleadingly presumes that the government, under Michel Martelly, has legitimacy. This point of view ignores the fact that the current government was not democratically elected, since the most popular political party, Lavalas, was banned from participating in the last several elections. More fundamentally, it ignores the reality that Haiti is under a destructive, military occupation that is maintained by some of the very parties who claim to want to rebuild Haiti.

It seems absurd that those responsible for undermining Haiti’s democracy and supporting repressive regimes - the Duvaliers, Martelly - should later rally to Haiti’s cause. It is common knowledge in Haiti that the United States, France, and Canada backed the February 2004 coup d’état in which then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced into exile; without these nations’ financial and military support, the kidnapping/coup and subsequent occupation would not have been possible.

Michel Martelly’s priorities are wholly opposed to those of most Haitians. Since his inauguration in March 2011, the public has consistently called for his resignation. In giving its support to Martelly, it would appear that the Obama administration has implicitly threw its weight behind his repressive policies - in the form of arbitrary arrests and political persecution; his paramilitary activities, his laundering of national resources; his designs to change Haiti’s constitution; and the forced evictions he authorized after the earthquake.

Who Owes Whom?

In February 2010, finance ministers from the Group of 7 nations met and agreed to cancel Haiti’s bilateral debt. The exact amount that was forgiven was not reported, but at the time Haiti’s debt was estimated at $1.9 billion, $1.2 billion of which was supposedly canceled by the G7 the previous June.

Given that the earthquake damage was estimated at nearly $8 billion - which surpassed Haiti’s gross domestic product - the debt cancellation was praised by some who noted the obvious: the Haitian people could now free up more of their limited resources for rebuilding. But if one understands the history of Haiti’s exploitation by some of these very same G7 nations - namely, France, the US, and Canada - one will see that their “forgiveness” came too little, too late. For this sort of forgiveness seems rather like a thief throwing a few coins to the victim he already robbed. 

Twenty-one years after the Haitian Revolutionary War ended, France demanded that its former colony pay 150 million gold francs as compensation for its losses, which included human “property.” In order to make the payment - valued at $21.7 in 2002 - Haiti had to take out a number of loans from French and American banks, and her economy, infrastructure, and educational system suffered.

Why didn’t the G7 nations take this debt into consideration at their February 2010 meeting? The only alternatives are to condone or condemn France’s crime against Haiti.

Why didn’t the G7 nations consider that most of Haiti’s recent “debt” was incurred prior to the first democratic elections in 1990? Loans that Haiti received during this period fed and fattened the repressive Duvalier dictatorship, including the death squads that murdered tens of thousands of people.

Today, then, the question ought not be how much debt the world superpowers condescend to forgive Haiti, nor even how many millions they promise for earthquake relief. Genuine rebuilding must take as its premise that the Haitian people are due a justice at least 200-years-old. Their claims for justice are both legally and morally sound and have been ignored for far too long.

BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator, Nia Imara, PhD, is a member of Haiti Action Committee. www.haitisolidarity.netClick here to contact Dr. Imara.

[1] Deborah Sontag, “Rebuilding in Haiti Lags After Billions in Post-Quake Aid,” (December 23, 2012), New York Times

[2] Julie Walz, “Haiti: Three Years After the Quake and Not Much Has Changed,” (December 11, 2012), Center for Global Development.