‘Sustained help’ is what President Barack Obama has promised to Haiti after the devastating earthquake which is estimated to have killed as many as 200,000 people. Gordon Brown is unquestionably right to urge people to give to help the aid efforts and in his praise of how people have given in response to the crisis. However, as political leaders there is much more Obama and Brown should be doing; above all they must make sure that the disaster is not compiled by the cynical exploitation of the current crisis.
In an article for The Nation Richard Kim details how Haiti has been crippled by its indebtedness to Western powers. Following Haiti’s liberation from the French in 1804 it was forced by 1825, under threat of embargo from France and other Western powers, to pay 150 million francs in reparations to French slave owners.
It turned primarily to Germany and the US for help. However, it has never escaped from this spiral of debt and also has been subjected to the imposition of ’structural adjustment policies’ by the World Bank and IMF. All of which have contributed to Haiti being not just the poorest but also one of the most unequal societies in the Western hemisphere. According to a Centre for International Policy report;
It is second only to Namibia in income inequality (Jadotte 2006) , and has the most millionaires per capita in the region. Margarethe Thenusla, a 34-year old factory worker and mother of two said, “When they ask for aid for the needy, you hear that they release thousands of dollars for aid in Haiti. But when it comes you can’t see anything that they did with the food aid. You see it in the market, they’re selling it. Us poor people don’t see it.”
It is in this context that today’s reports of ‘looting’ should be judged. Not only is aid most likely bottlenecked but it has to be questioned if it is getting through to the people that need it most. While the international aid effort is welcome it has to be treated cautiously. The International Monetary Fund; under the guise of ‘assisting’ Haiti, looks set to add to its burdens. According to Kim its recent addition of $100 million to Haiti’s debt has strings attached:
Debt relief activists tell me that these loans came with conditions, including raising prices for electricity, refusing pay increases to all public employees except those making minimum wage and keeping inflation low.
It doesn’t have to be this way; the loan could be made under the IMF’s rapid credit facility which does not impose such conditions. However, I have yet to see any politician propose this course of action or indeed show concern for the cancellation of Haiti’s debt. Indeed, it is hard not to share the concerns expressed by Adam Ramsey on Left Foot Forward that Haiti is about to suffer from its own version of Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine’.
Meanwhile, the tragic events in Haiti expose the disgracefulness of David Cameron’s proposals to ’salami slice’ the international aid budget; diverting some of it towards the defence budget and a ‘reconstruction fund’. This is yet another pledge that the Conservatives (who promised to ring-fence spending on international development) are undermining through the backdoor. Cameron is becoming a dab-hand at policy slights-of-hand which rob Peter to pay Paul and the sheer hypocrisy of his ‘compassionate’ Conservatism is nauseating.
Debt reduction and aid targeted in ways that will help countries like Haiti grow their own infrastructure is the kind of ’sustained help’ that is really needed. Delivering this means that the likes of Obama and Brown have to do much more than express their concern and moral support; it demands widespread structural reform of international financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF.