Let Haitians take charge of their destinies

Lunch service at a mission in Haiti, taken Feb. 9, 2010. Photo: Graham Lavery

For decades, centuries even, powerful international actors such as the U.S., Canada, France, and the U.N., as well as thousands of non-governmental organizations and individual benefactors, have determined the fate of Haiti. Since Canada's involvement with the 2004 coup against former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a small national movement has led the call, "Canada out of Haiti!"

Despite the earthquake and the international community's relief effort, this movement is growing. At its the heart lies the notion that foreign actors must no longer claim to know "what is best" for the country, and allow citizens, under a democratically elected leader, to decide and forge their own direction. They claim that subtle but crippling interventionist policies are taking place today in the form of government-to-government boycotts and the resulting reliance on foreign NGOs.

Ottawa and other western governments placed a boycott on funding the Haitian government in 2000 when Aristide was in power. According to Roger Annis of the Canada Haiti Action Network, "that policy is still in place."

While the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) will fund Canadian NGOs working in the country, "Canada does not provide funding to the organizations of the Haitian government... I don't think there's a single western country that gives government-to-government aid today," says Annis.

This boycott, perpetuated and justified by the notion that the Haitian government is weak, corrupt, and therefore unable to govern its people, has helped to fuel the large number of NGOs operating in the country. The theory goes that since the Haitian government is incompetent, but since the Haitian people need so much, this void must be filled by foreign agencies.

Joia Mukherjee of Partners in Health, one of the most formidable NGOs currently working in Haiti, says that the boycott of government-to-government aid simply fuels Haiti's inability to care for itself, and therefore ideas of corruption and unaccountability.

"The government has no money and there's such a small tax base in Haiti because there's a very small middle class and a lot of poorer people," she explains. "The only other chance is money coming from the... international community, [who] purposely bypass the government by saying ‘we can't give the government money because it's corrupt,' then pointing to the government not doing anything because it doesn't have the money. It's a vicious cycle."

After the earthquake, government buildings lie in ruins, nearly all of foreign money has been funneled to non-profits and international charities. According to Mukherjee, only $.01/dollar of aid goes to the country's government.

Yves Engler, author of Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority, says that 80 per cent of the country's social services are run by NGOs, with estimates of over 10,000 operating throughout the country. "There is no other place in the world where NGOs have more power than in Haiti," he says.

Engler claims this notion of corruption is "just an excuse" to choke the government of foreign aid. Claims that Haiti is ungovernable are "grossly exaggerated," adds Annis. "Haiti is no more or less corrupt than any other country in the world, including Canada. It's not that dangerous or violent a place."

Annis notes that the instability that does occur can largely be attributed to the despotic Papa and Baby Doc regimes, as well as the series of coups that took place into the early 2000s, all of which were supported by external powers.
A heavy NGO presence also helps with the continuation of neo-liberal policies previously pushed by large western powers, says Annis. "The Haiti experience with NGOs is a modern form of colonialism for the most part," he says, with Canadian government "using NGOs in this regard." Most are "ineffective or implicit. It's [CHAN's] view that most Canadian NGOs have failed Haiti."

The hiring of non-Haitian relief workers and reliance of part-time labour in the weeks following the earthquake are exemplary of reliance on foreign NGOs and stems sustainable relief efforts, says Mukherjee. While PIH has hired an extra 100 community health workers as part of the response team, most organizations "are not hiring local people, are not engaging local people."

"Why are people being brought in to do these jobs? Why aren't they employing Haitians?" Mukherjee asks. "I'd like to see a lot of this relief money get to the ground in the form of jobs."

Where Haitians can find work, it is mostly in the form of temporary labour. "What you're seeing is people hiring day labour which is completely undignified and unreliable," explains Mukherjee. "They should pay people at least for six months on contract."

All three activists call for the immediate end of government-to-government boycotts. "There has to be a relationship of mutual respect of Canada towards Haiti, where the aid and reconstruction and development funds are accorded to Haiti from one country to the other, from one government to another," says Annis.

"If we care about democratic institutions and we believe that the voice of the people is a reasonable voice to listen to... we need to stop letting aid completely circumvent the government," says Mukherjee. Continued reliance on foreign NGOs "will weaken democratic institutions of Haiti in general, especially health and education... I think it's robbing the voice of the Haitian people."

Stephen Harper's recent pledge of $12 million to build temporary structures for the homeless Haitian government may act as a small stepping stone towards government-to-government aid. It is not clear, however, whether the project will be under done by a Canadian or Haitian team.

Mukherjee and Annis look to the education of Canadians as essential to exerting pressure on Ottawa.

"To me it would be a dream in solidarity around Haiti to have people really understand the history of France and U.S. and Canada in [the country], to see how these occupations have affected the country," says Mukherjee.

Adds Annis, "people have to become more aware and educated about what's taken place in Haiti and the role [of] the dominant powers of the world. They need to become aware of the failure of Canada and the U.S.'s aid programmes.

"It's going to take a combination of the Haitian people themselves getting back on their feet politically," says Annis, "and the other side of the equation is ‘who's going to listen to them?' Is anyone in Canada going to listen to what they have to say?"

Mukherjee says that single greatest thing that Haiti needs is the "support of the self-determination of the Haitian people. [It is] 260 years overdue."

Mara Kardas-Nelson is a rabble.ca intern and editor of Campus Notes.

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