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Tectonic Shifts? The upcoming donors' conference for Haiti

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March 24, 2010

(Miami) This week former Presidents Clinton and Bush are in Haiti, trying to drum up support for Haiti's reconstruction and setting the stage for the upcoming donor conference at the U.N. on March 31. There is no shortage of needs, and even plans to address them. Yet the process has as yet to be transparent.

I am in the Miami airport as I write this, on my way to Haiti via a conference of applied anthropologists in Mexico. Miami is a familiar stopping off point for groups and individuals going to Haiti. My flight happens to be next to the one to Port-au-Prince. Striking to me is a much higher percentage of blan ¬- foreigners - waiting for their flight. Still more striking is the type of blan: as a foreigner myself I used to be a magnet for self-assured mission groups all clad in the same bright t-shirt who still had trouble navigating foreign waters. Given my appearance they, and many in Haiti, pegged me as one of them, as a blan misyonè.

Not today. Most blan at this gate are equipped with I-phones or Blackberries, talking in a staccato that betrays the pace and self-absorption one would expect on the subways in Manhattan or Washington. Development jargon of "RFPs" and "deliverables" pepper the loud conversation of mostly thirtysomethings. They are blan devlopman or blan ONG, "development" or "NGO foreigners."

Maybe these are some of the 300 experts that are assembling Haiti's next blueprint for development. Maybe they are just trying to plant themselves and write a proposal for their agency to get their portion of the windfall.

This world - and the hundreds of thousands of survivors still not having their daily needs met, most notably 600,000 who don't have a dry place to sleep, still - are waiting for the donor's conference at the end of this month to see who will be pledging what, for what. Some still hold out hope that this plan will seize an opportunity and finally do right by the majority of Haitian people. The waiting, and not participating or even knowing about the plan, is making many people nervous. On March 16 there was a conference in the Dominican Republic to present donors with the draft Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) and the beginning of this week, UNESCO held a meeting in Paris to outline specifics. Most people I know expect that the donors' conference hosted by the United Nations on March 31 will not be a deliberative space but a ritualistic one.

True, there is a new team in Washington. True also, the severity of the earthquake has triggered rumblings of new thinking: even former President Bill Clinton apologized this past weekend for his promotion of subsidized rice in the 1990s that destroyed Haiti's peasant economy while being a boon for Arkansas agribusiness. But this donor conference bears too close a resemblance to those before it, which basically rubber-stamped an assemblage of policies hurriedly culled together and imposed by international institutions.

After the 2004 coup, and after the U.S. passed the baton onto Brazil, was a conference hosted in Washington by the World Bank called in French Cadre de Coopération Intérimaire (CCI), or Interim Cooperation Framework in English. The CCI began with a three-week "participation" period wherein 200 experts, most of them foreign, consulted large NGOs and members of "civil society," particularly leaders within the Group of 184, the bourgeois opposition to Aristide. "Participation" also included merely an invitation letter to other groups who boycotted the process. A network of progressive groups in Haiti published three scathing critiques of the CCI, particularly the rushed, top-down approach and the neoliberal plan that came out of it.

The donors' conference, on July 19-20, 2004, was a ritual of approval and support for the de-facto regime of U.N. retiree Gérard Latortue. Donor groups like the U.S., E.U., U.N., IDB, and World Bank pledged $1.4 billion to rebuild Haiti torn apart by the coup, which the international community blamed solely on Aristide. A closer look at these pledges revealed that these agencies were "double-dipping," counting funds that they had withheld from the elected government pending resolution of the "crisis" - but still, some $900 million new funds were promised. As of October 2005, 15 months after the conference, only 30 percent of pledged funds were released. The plan itself set into motion the privatization of public utilities in electricity (EDH) and the phone company (Teleco) and further pushed Haiti into neoliberal globalization in agriculture and industry.

This same ritual of rubber stamping a rushed, foreign-led, top-down process occurred with the new elected government and its first donor conference, with a little different ambiance as President Préval defended his support of Cuban doctors and Venezuela's Petro Caribé. The World Bank's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper was more of the same. The most recent plan, however, did away with even the pretense of participation. Famed British economist Paul Collier, not having even visited Haiti, proposed the same boilerplate strategies he proposed for many other countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

This contrasts with the work that a partnership of universities called INURED is doing in Cité Soleil. A detailed, well-conceived and executed, and ambitious plan to assess local needs in both quantitative and qualitative terms, a report called "Voices from the Shanties" voices some concerns about security and trauma that are going under the radar. It also uncovers some practices from individual families to abuse the system by fanning out into many camps (which if neighborhood groups were organizing the distribution would be much more difficult - not to mention less likely for corruption or violence - as grassroots groups constantly point out). Primary concerns remain sanitation - literally shit - and its health consequences in the U.N. run camps.

As almost every report from the field has shown, Haitian survivors are doing an amazing job of working together, of building solidarity, of organizing neighborhood-level committees. This comes as no surprise to those who know the Haitian people, but apparently this knowledge seems not to trickle up to mainstream foreign media, policymakers, donors, and large NGOs.

Survivors are excluded from the process. The U.N. cluster meetings exclude Haitian survivors and even government officials, as Reed Lindsay reported. Meetings are held in French, a language that 90 percent of the population does not speak and cannot write. Even progressive solidarity organizations are having conversations in English. A network of 47 progressive groups in Haiti and other countries met to critique the exclusion of Haitian civil society from this plan, publishing a statement on March 18 signed by 26 groups.

The plan does appear to be more of the same. Despite Clinton's apology for the rice subsidies and destroying Haiti's national production, he is as wedded as ever to the Collier Report and the reliance on Haiti's "cheap labor" in offshore apparel factories. Lindsay reported that for all the promotion of decentralization and national production, only four percent of the funds are going to agricultural production. The funds going through the elected government of Haiti are at an all-time low, less than one percent, at the same moment when donor groups discuss the importance of building up state capacity and systems.

Solutions are many.

My hometown of Chicago was rebuilt better than the old city following a great fire. How Chicago rose from the ashes a better city might offer lessons for my new "Second City" of Port-au-Prince. Chicago used the opportunity to plan, employing public works master Daniel Burnham and architects Sullivan and the great Frank Lloyd Wright. Careful thought and planning went into accommodating density, separating work and home life, and adequate space for recreation. A document called "Haïti Demain" coming out of an inter-ministerial team of the Haitian government presents several forward-thinking proposals, the first of which is rehabilitating a network of roads that connect Haiti's provincial towns to another so that local development can be a virtuous cycle. Other specific suggestions include a fund for local development, real decentralization and better coordination from Haiti's central government.

I do hope that a better Port-au-Prince will emerge from the rubble, a Port-au-Prince that offers running water and toilet facilities for all, regular access to electricity for all, safe neighborhoods and well-maintained streets for all. It is possible. It will require a plan. This planning process cannot move forward without the survivors, while their urgent needs are not yet met. This planning process should include real participation, a tèt ansanm (coming together) of all emergent and old neighborhood groups that are pulling together for their own collective survival. Survivors in Port-au-Prince do not need luxury hotels or casinos, for example. The apparel industry has provided needed jobs but their high social costs - and extremely low wages - played a heavy role in creating the violent shantytowns in the first place.

Another silver lining might present itself in that many people are moving back to their hometowns in the provinces, estimated at 600,000 people. This could present an opportunity to rebuild Haiti's national production and peasant economy, systematically ruined by neoliberalism. In the mean time the problems that donors refer to as a lack of social capital - violence, anonymity, scale - of the crowding of the capital will have already been eased. What's more, aid agencies, the Haitian government, and Haitian civil society alike all have stated a desire for decentralization in addition to national production that remains a stated goal of the Préval government. As Lindsay pointed out, this discourse is not new. The irony is not lost on Haitian people now. There used to be a proverb said a long time ago, si peyizan pa desann mòn, moun lavil pa manje (If the peasants didn't descend the mountain, city people wouldn't eat). This hasn't been true for quite some time. This earthquake may have provided the opportunity to rebuild. There is an important caveat. Some groups have advocated the wholesale exodus of Port-au-Prince. This is irresponsible for a couple of reasons. First, many Port-au-Prince residents, particularly the youth in the shantytowns, grew up in Port-au-Prince. Half of the country's population is 15 or younger. Secondly, without quick and sustainable job creation, this migration simply displaces the problem of food security into the remote rural areas, already marginalized because of communications and physical infrastructure. Already people are moving back.

One long-term model would be to rebuild the support economy to transform crops grown by a self-sufficient peasantry. Land reform has never been more urgent, but especially with the city cousins coming back home from Port-au-Prince, the need to create jobs processing the rice, the corn, the sugar, the mangos, the tomatoes, has never been greater. Women's activist JoAnna plead with me in an interview: "We used to have factories that used to make tomato paste, they destroyed that. We had factories that used to make milk, they destroyed that. Well, we used to have factories that made sugar, they destroyed that." A sugar mill formerly owned by the American agribusiness HASCO was taken over by local ownership in Léogâne, in the neighborhood of Darbonne. This area was as close to the epicenter as Port-au-Prince. Rebuilding it - and the tens of factories that used to produce tomato paste like just outside of Cavaillon - not to mention building new factories to transform corn into corn oil, syrup, etc. is now no longer a wistful symbol of Latin American development (ECLAC and Import Substitution Industrialization) before the wave of coups but an urgent priority. These jobs will go to local residents who will likely spend their money on services (hopefully not those like education or health care, but that is another conversation) which should in turn energize the local economy.

In the mean time, Haiti has 565 sections communals (hamlets or villages), each with an elected "mayor" and city council. Plans are being drawn up for town hall meetings. In the mean time, $1000 can be sent to every elected government to do something that is concrete, real, and a felt priority for their neighbors, fellow church members, peasant association members, and cousins and it would only cost donors half a million dollars, less than a planning process with international experts. And at this level, the social control works to keep leaders honest. And if this doesn't work, the village wouldn't get further funding and donors are only out 1000 bucks. There has never been a better time - or better symbol - for the international community to support the constitutional government of Haiti, at all levels. Agencies' end-run around it and the steady NGOization of Haiti has played a significant role in creating this disaster.

There are plans in the works for a comprehensive rural development. Now, more than ever, they need to include real citizen participation. Haiti has experienced several other development frameworks (e.g. Interim Cooperation Framework, Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper) that look good on paper but have been top-down, exclusionary, and have yielded little results other than official government approval for donors' plans for Haiti. This process must include real participation in all levels - including peasants associations and local governments - in order to make this useful. The materials must be in Haitian Creole, but it would be useful to be as simple and direct as possible. Who sets the agenda for these planning meetings? Can local leaders amend the pre-established agendas? Who sets the priorities, and how? In the context of the camps they need to be at the very least designing how the limited goods are distributed fairly in the community. It says a lot that Haiti's survivors aren't being entrusted with this bare minimum of participation.

There are many other good ideas floating around, such as cash grants to teachers to provide free schooling to children. Without genuine participation from the survivors, real decentralization, and respect for the elected government of Haiti, will only remain good ideas. What is needed is a tectonic shift, a radical rupture from the neoliberal economic model and the top-down institutional process that got us here in the process.

This tectonic shift has been called for in many ways recently.

Haitian American activist and Deputy Director of Lambi Fund wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald outlining a bottom-up strategy. MADRE and a new collective called "Poto Mitan" is organizing a sign-on letter in advance of the Donors' Meeting. A letter to the U.N. was signed by 300 NGOs and circulated on March 18, the same day as the Haitian civil society coalition. This Monday, a coalition of human rights groups (Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, Zanmi Lasante/Partners in Health, RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights, NYU Law School's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, and Bureau des Avocats Internationaux) testified before Inter-American Commission.

Tellingly, many of the principles are the same. They are:
• Fix the still-urgent problem of shelter and sanitation for the hundreds of thousands of survivors in Port-au-Prince
• Provide immediate job creation and economic development to the provinces
• Respect for the survivors - who need to participate in the reconstruction planning process in real ways
• Respect for the elected government of Haiti playing a coordinating role and defining the framework for NGO action
• A focus on human rights needs to replace a profit-seeking model that has dominated development in Haiti for years
• Build up local capacity and local expertise, from grassroots neighborhood and peasants association to the State University of Haiti

Haiti's earthquake shook up and exposed donors' model for Haiti as the failure it was. Hopefully there is still time to move the earth and build a new one from the ground up.

Mark Schuller is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at York College, the City University of New York. In addition to studying NGOs in Port-au-Prince since 2001, he is the co-editor of Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction.