Four years after the earthquake, Haiti has rebounded, according to Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, who seems to be the government executive who speaks to the outside world about Haiti (as opposed to President Michel Martelly, who deals, in his own inimitable way, with problems on the domestic front).
So Lamothe told The Miami Herald on the eve of the 4th anniversary of the disaster.
How did Lamothe frame the recovery he claimed for Haiti? First, in terms of government ministries that are being physically rebuilt: So many of the buildings that housed institutions like the justice ministry, the bureau of taxation, the ministry of finance, etc., fell down in what some Haitian commentators — looking at the structural damage to those corrupt and destructive institutions — called Sekous Jistis [earthquake of justice]. On the subject of housing, the prime minister talked to the Herald in government-speak that was hard to unravel (“Out of 3,000 social housing, we have 1,500 that were inaugurated,” he told the Herald’s no doubt confused Jacquie Charles. He mentioned roads, which are important, and clinics, and a center for children. Most of his figures seemed small time and incredibly inadequate, given Haiti’s needs.
The New York Times editorial on the earthquake’s anniversary was more illuminating. Here’s what it said about post-quake housing for displaced victims of the catastrophe:
For all the talk — and the $14 billion pledged by governments the world over since Jan. 12, 2010 — what is there to show? The grand total of new homes built in four years since the quake is dismally low: 7,515.
Breaking the figures down by donor isn’t much better: 60% of US-disbursed recovery funding is “not specified“, as is 67% of Canada’s aid to Haiti. Data for the European commission shows that 67% of humanitarian funding and 43% of recovery funding is to “other international NGOs“. Data reporting becomes even more opaque when one looks for the specific organisations, agencies, firms or individuals that have received grants or contracts in Haiti. Detailed financial reports and rigorous impact evaluations are hard to find.
There are some exceptions, but most organizations only publish case studies or other descriptions of their work; negative outcomes or failures are almost never documented. Of the thousands of projects being run in Haiti, we found only 45 organization- or project-level evaluation reports at the end of 2011. A total of 23 reports do not have specific project data and only four have any specific detail about how the money was spent.
Back to the much touted “rebound.”
Lamothe, as he loves to do when talking to us, also pointed to the post-earthquake development of the north (which is about as far away as you can get from those most affected by the earthquake) as positive evidence of Haiti’s post-disaster recovery. The most beloved project of the Martelly/Lamothe government (helped along hugely by the U.S.) is the Caracol industrial complex outside Cap Haitien, which is intended to house numerous foreign-owned and -run enterprises. Supposedly, a new northern port is being dredged and built nearby that can accommodate modern-day global shipping; Lamothe says the slowness of this project is what stands in the way of Caracol living up to its promise of employing more than 60,000 Haitians. Also the slowness of building a new airport in Cap Haitien is impeding progress, obstructing (only to a degree, from Lamothe’s point of view) the joyous rebound.
Right now, however, according to the New York Times’ editorial, more than a year after its inauguration Caracol employs a scant 2,590. Moreover, the Times asserts, “garment factories at Caracol and elsewhere routinely violate Haitian minimum-wage laws and pay most workers too little to live on.”
How could the United States promise [hundreds of millions of dollars] for Haiti, and then give it to itself? But it’s not so surprising: that’s how foreign aid has always worked in Haiti. What’s instructive about the allocations of these [earthquake] funds is not that they were given to U.S. entities, but that that’s how the United States — as well as other foreign governments and organizations — believes that it can help the developing world, and especially Haiti, whose government is viewed as obsessively corrupt, and whose organizations and people are often seen as some simplistic version of Fred Voodoo, a stereotype — either lying, cheating, and manipulative incompetents, or silly, backward, useless children. The idea is that only through our administration can anything be done for Haiti. The idea is that giving money to Haitian organizations is a vain enterprise. These foreign-aid figures highlight the real purpose of aid to Haiti both before and after the earthquake, which is to funnel money to the guys who, the Americans believe, can make things work here — which is to say, the Americans.
In a sense, then, Haitian corruption works to enrich two parties: Haitian government officials who are corrupt, and their families, and the American corporations and organizations that operate in Haiti. Essentially the development aid machine, along with the American, French, Taiwanese, Canadian, and South Korean private sectors that do business in Haiti, pays the Haitian government to be corrupt and to ignore the task of oversight. Again, from Fred Voodoo:
Let’s put it this way: since 1915, when the U.S. occupation of Haiti began, the powerful neighbor to the north has treated Haitian governments, at best, as rubber stamps for U.S. policy and for American businesses working in Haiti, as well as for a few Haitian-run businesses friendly to American interests. For almost all of the twentieth century, only U.S.-approved Haitians could be president [note: not so different now — witness the questionable election in which Martelly was voted in]. The embassy looked the other way at internal political repression, to say nothing of continued starvation, as long as Haitian governments were friendly, or at least anticommunist, like Papa Doc’s [not so different now — witness U.S. opposition to Haiti’s dealings with Venezuela and Cuba]…. Any leader who seems to have an agenda that puts the Haitian people ahead of the tiny Haitian business elite is thrown out: viz., Aristide, twice.
My uncle was an oilman who told me, when I began working in Haiti in the mid1980s, that although much was promised to people like him by François Duvalier in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he wouldn’t work in Haiti because of the endemic corruption. Other bigger oil companies were not so picky. Pay something nice in bribes up front to the dictatorship, the understanding went, and from then on, no friction, no problem, no competition, no tariff, no taxes. For a longer explanation about oil, U.S. policy, and recent battles over Venezuelan oil relations with Haiti, click here.
As I wrote in Fred Voodoo: “Many say the Haitian government is disorganized, but no one is fooled. It’s organized. Actually, the Haitian kleptocracy has been organized over the years, almost purposefully, one might conclude, to be porous and incompetent, to allow for corruption.” Why do we think construction of the northern port (a questionable project in the first place) and the northern airport are moving so slowly? Answer: corruption, and you can be sure that this corruption is benefiting outsider contractors who are helping with all those projects.
I was reading today about the Fellowship Foundation, which arrived in Washington D.C. from the American West in the 1940s, and which advocates a kind of elite leadership for the U.S., a leadership in which no behavior by the organization’s fellows is impermissible once they are acknowledged by the group to be the elect of Christ. This bizarrely powerful and influential association — also called the International Christian Leadership, the Up and Outers, and more recently, C Street, or the Family — has partnered down the years with important American businessmen and politicians who also considered themselves chosen. According to Jeff Sharlet, in his book C Street, David Coe, a leader within the Family, said this about the chosen and their relation to God. “Moral orders, that’s for kids. God’s will is beyond morals.”
How does this relate to Haiti and what I’ve been writing here?, you may well wonder.
Well, in 1959 (the year is important because it marked the end of the Cuban revolution and the enstatement of Fidel Castro in Haiti’s neighborhood), a follower who was also a U.S. Senator went down to Haiti for the International Christian Leadership with a group of U.S. businessmen. According to Sharlet, the senator “took the fight to Haiti, where he decreed François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier God’s man for the island nation and thus worthy of U.S. support, the guns and butter that kept Papa Doc — one of the most lunatic killers of the Western Hemisphere — and then his son, Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc,’ in business for decades…. [The ICL] helped Papa Doc and Papa Doc helped the businessmen who traveled to Haiti with [the senator].” It was, both in Haiti and elsewhere, Sharlet writes, a “pray-to-be-paid scheme by savvy foreign leaders who could flatter the moral imaginations of American politicians in exchange for military dollars…. [T]he Family… cloaked realpolitik in religion, allowing its politician members to imagine they were doing God’s work as they funneled guns and cash and power to dictators….”
I’ve thought of Duvalier as many things, but never before as “God’s man for the island nation.” The involvement of the ICL in early Cold War politics in Haiti helps explain a little more, for me, why Haiti has remained so important to conservative American politicians and has attracted so much negative attention from us. It helps color in the whole picture, adding fervent Protestantism to anticommunism, pro-capital trade policy, and institutional and personal racism, as explanations of our continuing interference on the Haitian scene. So much post-quake help, and failure to help, was Christian motivated, often in the best, most charitable, kindest way. But kindness and niceness cannot help but fail in the face of the not nice and not kind structures of economic behavior that dire and viselike poverty imposes.
I had the privilege of watching Prime Minister Lamothe in action on his recent trip to California. He’s smooth, and smart. He knows how to seduce American idea peddlers and commentators, as well as young businessmen, celebrities, and do-gooders . He understands that what sells in the U.S. is investment and security, so that’s what he claims Haiti has.
He talked to interested listeners about how tech and the digital age are coming to Haiti, when I know experientially, shall we say, that the people I visit in the Port-au-Prince shantytowns and quartiers populaires don’t even have electricity or toilets, although Lamothe might want to argue, correctly, that many of those without running water do have cellphones.
This means you can text your tonton in Queens from the thin pallet bed in your mother’s shack in Canaan (see photo, above), while you are dying of cholera.
So when Lamothe talks about Haiti rebounding, I guess I can agree — if I stretch his meaning. Haiti is on the rebound from four years of intensive care at the hands and the mercy of the international aid and development community. Four years, 14 billion dollars promised, $7 billion spent (maybe), and 7,500 houses built.
If a country can survive that treatment, it can be said, I suppose, to be in recovery. The New York Times’ anniversary editorial bemoaned the departure of the post-earthquake helping community of outsiders. But I think that perhaps, over time, Haiti might possibly be just a little better off without this big-hearted but huge, diffuse, and largely irresponsible group.