HAITI: The Benefits of a Weak State

Posted on March 23, 2008


This is an excellent and comprehensive summary of the “weak state” prescription that the international community has been administering to Haiti for years. Now, Haiti is more sick than ever. Darren Ell is right — the only way this will stop is for the citizens of US, France, and Canada to learn what their countries are doing in Haiti and to mobilize against it.

Haiti: The Benefits of a Weak State

By Darren Ell

HIP Special Report – Darren Ell is a photojournalist from Montreal, Canada who contributes to the Haiti Information Project (HIP). His previous work, interviews with Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, Mario Joseph, and Brian Concannon Jr., focused on the violation of civil and political rights following the 2004 coup d’état. This article looks at the international community’s violation of the social and economic rights of Haitians. His photographic work on the impact of the 2004 coup d’état will be presented in a public exhibition in Montreal in the last two weeks of September 2008.

This article assumes that Western nations have an option. In the past, they invested in their own people in the midst of economic depression; they rebuilt the economies of entire nations following World War II; they now have unprecedented resources to invest elsewhere. Instead, their governments and the international financial institutions they control are bankrupting countries like Haiti in order to satisfy the selfish interests of a tiny foreign and domestic business elite. A key tactic in their policies is to weaken foreign central governments. As Peter Hallward states in Damming the Flood, the most comprehensive book written about recent Haitian history, “both the domestic elite and its foreign patrons have a vested interest in the weakness of the state and the instability of its government. A weak government means minimal taxes or tariffs, minimal regulations, minimal interference in the exploitation of labor, trade or contraband”

And so it has gone for all progressive governments in Haiti since 1990: dramatic reductions in foreign aid have been used to cripple the government’s ability to deliver on its promises; aid has been taken from the government and given to foreign NGO’s; forced tariff reductions have ruined indigenous economic activity, driven up unemployment and destroyed Haiti’s tax base; and coup d’états have been financed whenever governments have tried to collect corporate taxes, raise the minimum wage or implement desperately needed social spending. Aside from local business elites and their foreign partners, the only other group to benefit from the pillage has been foreign NGO’s who are now in charge of “developing” the country, the government lacking the resources to do it itself. This, in a nutshell, has been the international community’s vision for Haiti since Haitians sacrificed their lives throwing off dictatorship: destroy local economic competition, weaken the state, then send in charities and NGO’s to pick up the pieces.

The Government of Haiti has conveniently been blamed for the country’s problems. Canada even claimed that the International Community had to protect Haiti from its own democratically elected government in 2004. Meanwhile, Canada – whose citizens enjoy world-class government-subsidized transportation, education, health care and social security – had been working to undermine the state apparatus in Haiti since 2000. Whatever mistakes elected Haitian governments may have made since 1990, they pale in comparison to the wrecking ball unleashed on them by foreign powers. As political activist and member of Haiti’s Sovereignty Commission Patrick Elie recently stated: “Every progressive government in Haiti since 1990 has found itself in the position of trying to fix a collapsing house while assassins are trying to break down the back door. People looking at the house later blame the government, but it was busy the whole time keeping the assassins – you guys – from breaking in with your machine guns. People always leave out that part – the constant aggression, the constant sabotage.”

How cash-starved is the government of Haiti? In 2000, ten years of sabotage had left the Aristide government with a miniscule $600 million budget, half of it derived directly from foreign aid. After the US and Canada cut aid or diverted it away from the government into NGO’s, Hallward points out that “the total government budget was reduced to the risible sum of just $300 million. To put this in context, this amount is roughly equal to the municipal budget of a small US city with around 100,000 inhabitants.” Note that the $300 million also had to cover “the annual $60 million payment on the national debt, 45% of which was incurred by the Duvalier dictatorships.” In other words, while the municipal government of a US city had $3,000 to spend on each of its 100,000 citizens, Aristide had $29 to spend on each of his 8.5 million citizens. As Canadian freelance journalist Anthony Fenton has shown, Canadian policy dovetailed with US policy, and aid skyrocketed as soon as the popular progressive Fanmi Lavals (FL) regime was overthrown in 2004 and Gerard Latortue’s “interim government” began murdering and jailing thousands of FL supporters. What’s more, unlike Lavalas governments, which had a consistent record of investing in social and material infrastructure of the country, Latortue weakened the state’s influence by bringing constructive investment to a full stop, cancelling literacy, land reform and subsidized meal programs, the collection of corporate taxes, price controls and import regulations, and firing thousands of public sector workers. Today, in 2008, the UN spends the equivalent of twice Haiti’s national budget policing frustrated unemployed Haitians.

What does a weak state mean for the people of Haiti? Let’s start with people who in Canada or the US would belong to the “middle class”? A part-time teacher in Port-au-Prince told me he was deciding which of his children had to miss a year of school because he couldn’t afford the fees; a man from Cap Haitian with diplomas in French and Economics had been looking for employment for 2 years and was living off his parents; full-time hospital workers in Port-au-Prince were complaining about not being paid for four months; the teachers in a Pétionville school expressed their relief that a foreign donor had come through with their unpaid $112 a month salaries; the leader of a Haitian national union organization said he occasionally pockets $300 a month, but was putting his children through school thanks to his wife’s job; a former member of the Haitian Parliament, illegally imprisoned for three years, stated that he lost his possessions in 2004 when anti-Lavalas thugs ransacked his home, and that he has not found work since his release from jail; unionized dock workers in Port au Prince said that after 15 years of struggle they negotiated one of the most lucrative agreements in Haiti: $440 a month salaries. However, their achievement was about to be crippled by a mass firing: 70% of Port-au-Prince’s 1,300 dock workers are about to lose their jobs in a privatization scheme.
Left: In the burning garbage dump of Fort Dimanche, a man shakes amagenta computer printer roller free of its ink so he sell the roller in a local scrap market. Right: A young boy in the Cap Haitian slum of Shada stands amid the fetid water where he just defecated. Behind him stands a community latrine which drains into the water. 01

None of these people could guarantee that their children would finish high school. 96% of Haitian children never do. Yet they are the lucky ones, being employed and earning more than the minimum wage, which sits at $2 a day. For the 70% of Haitians who have no employment at all, life is a matter of survival. At the back of the Cap Haitien slum, Shada, I met a woman sitting despondent outside her home which was situated next to a 2,500 square meter pile of toxic trash. She had four children under the age of 7. Her sons had light colored hair, a sign of the chronic malnutrition gnawing away at a quarter of all Haitian children. Her husband had left her and she was living off handouts from community members. Around the corner, another woman sat with three young children, her breastfeeding son bathed in a terrible sweat, his face covered with sores and his hair showing signs of malnutrition. A 26-year-old man named Wilfrid was repairing a metal cooking pan. Poverty forced him from school in grade 3. He said he was suffering from terrible chronic headaches. He was depressed and despondent , never looked at us, and didn’t know how much he earned by repairing pans. Twenty meters from his home, a young boy was defecating in the middle of a pool of garbage, next to a community latrine that drained into the water beside him. I was told one of the principle occupations of men in Shada is pushing a wheelbarrow, backbreaking work that nets them 50 cents a day, enough to buy one cup of rice. Men who don’t work stay home and sleep, depressed. People here eat a full meal every second day.

Citizens in the developed nations who are undermining Haiti’s government are protected against this scale of insecurity by publicly funded programs: unemployment insurance, welfare, and pension plans. Not so in Haiti. Some support comes from the diaspora whose remittances account for 30% of Haiti’s GDP, but state support is minimal. Even the private sector has little to offer: staff at Haiti’s largest private pension plan company, the Office National d’Assurance Vieillesse, told me that 60% of Haitians have no social security whatsoever, and that the most lucrative retirement package they offer is $42 a month. They acknowledge that not working in Haiti is a sentence to misery. This economic insecurity is taking a toll on people’s health. Eating two meals or less a day is the norm even for the employed of Haiti. There are hollow-eyed youth and adults throughout the country. Children in school have difficulty concentrating because of inadequate nourishment. One rarely sees an elderly person in Haiti (the average lifespan is 53 years). Haitians who have travelled to Canada described their astonishment at how many elderly people they see there.

They are probably equally surprised by the quality of public health care from which Canadians benefit. Marie Michelle Jean-Baptiste, head of a new health care worker’s union in Port au Prince, explained that the General Hospital (Hôpital de l’Université de l’État) is one of only two functioning public hospitals in the capital. Everything else in the city aside from the Tuberculosis sanatorium is private. Because of a lack of resources, the General Hospital provides only basic consultations, medications and lab work, a few x-rays, and essential surgery. All other services – medications, x-rays, lab tests, ultrasounds, major surgeries and so forth are run through the multitude of private clinics and pharmacies that line the streets surrounding the hospital in every direction as far as the eye can see. Very few Haitians can afford to eat regularly and health care has become a luxury only the wealthy few can afford.

The hospital staff copes with low or unpaid salaries, random firings and serious material shortfalls. The hospital’s two public ambulances, donations from Taiwan, have been broken down since mid-2005 with no new funds to repair them. By contrast, ten new Red Cross ambulances paraded through the crowds of the recent Carnaval festivities. Because of material shortages, the hospital laboratory is able to provide basic tests only: essential blood, urine, and faeces analysis. Anything else has to be paid for in private clinics. The hospital’s only ultrasound machine is broken. Since the spring of 2005, there has been no food service for patients in the hospital. Missionaries provide this service. Numerous sources confirmed that doctors have been robbing the hospital of its instruments and most prized technology in order to establish and maintain their own private clinics. Part of the problem, Marie Michelle Jean-Baptiste tells me, is that the state only pays doctors $420 a month.

The hospital pharmacy, intended to provide subsidized medications to Haitians, has been gutted and closed for 18 months. The sign lies broken in the yard. The medications room has a small number of drugs on half-empty shelves. The radiology department is no different. A frustrated technician pointed out that only one of the hospital’s five x-ray machines is functional. A second x-ray machine donated by Japan has been broken for a year and no one is able to repair it. A third machine is broken down sitting in a dusty room. A fourth lays broken on the floor in a hallway. One x-ray room is empty, apparently once containing a machine stolen by the director of the department for his private clinic. In other words, the radiology department is one breakdown away from being irrelevant. Unfortunately for the public, x-ray services in the private sector, like all other services, cost 4 to 5 times what they do in the General Hospital.

Numerous sources confirmed that Haitians have a habit of only consulting the “health care system” when they are desperate, when their illnesses are life-threatening or holding them back from functioning in society. Usually they stop after the consultation, unable to afford medications or surgeries. This partly explains the multitude of terrible ailments one sees in Haiti as well as the 53-year lifespan of Haitians
26 out a total of 31 students from Cap Haitian that had been sent home from school in January 2008 because their parents couldn’t afford school fees. Madame Bwa, the community activist fighting for them, estimates a third of children in her community never go to school at all.

The state of Haitian education is equally troubling. Patrick Elie points out that 85% of Haitian schools are private and cost four to five times as much as public schools. A case in point is Haiti’s second largest city, Cap Haitian. With a population of over 500,000, children there only have access to 2 publicly-funded high schools. The rest are private. Students stop and start school constantly, depending on their parents’ ability to pay. It is common to meet 20-year-olds in grade 8 and 12-year-olds in grade 3. When I visited the Cap Haitien slum of Shada, a community activist presented me with a list of 31 students ranging in age from 4 to 18 who had been sent home from school in the previous two weeks because their parents were unable to pay their school fees. Many students are inadequately nourished and can’t concentrate. Almost no one can afford glasses in Haiti, so many students can’t read what’s on the blackboard. Many can’t afford notebooks or pencils. Because of a lack of curricular resources, teachers often resort of rote strategies. Patrick Elie notes that regulation – a key function of a healthy government – is virtually absent in Haiti’s education system: “The state doesn’t impose rules on schools. There is no regulation regarding the number of students in a class, nothing about student evaluation, teacher qualifications or curriculum. People send their kids to schools run by a French organization and their exams are graded in France, not Haiti. You can open a two-room building with one teacher and call it a university. You can call anything an ‘institute.’ Nobody will come and look at what you’re doing.”
Clockwise from top left: (1) a bus company mechanic has to verify every bolt on every wheel after each 10 mile return trip from Lestere to Gonaives. He stated that at lease one bolt was always bent or broken. (2) The road is so rough that vehicules veer toward a smooth narrow corridor on the side of the route. (3) Trucks regularly break down on the road. The driver of this truck had already spent 24 hours trying to repair the broken bolts on his wheel. 8 women were traveling with their produce in the back of the truck. They had missed a day at the market and were concerned their produce would spoil. (4) The 4-6 inch rocks that litter the road. 03

Transportation is another area where strong state support is desperately needed. The foreign officials that bankrupted the Haitian government and killed, jailed or exiled its best minds should try riding a bus in Haiti. The rocky 10-mile stretch between Gonaives and Lestere splits tires, cracks axles, bends and breaks wheel bolts. Drivers and passengers stop talking and brace themselves for a 30-minute vertebrae-jarring gift from the international community. Passengers are injured by falling luggage. In the mountains, buses stuffed with 100 human beings weave around 6-foot-wide 2-foot-deep potholes, on a road without guardrails that lurches around 1000-foot ravines. According to Fortuné Patrice, head of the APCH, a Haitian trucker’s union, navigating these exhausting treacherous roads will net a Haitian driver anywhere between $2 and $12 for a day’s work. He also points out that the Haitian government can’t afford bus stations, so buses stop along the road, while passengers young and old have to urinate and defecate along the highway or in the streets of the cities.

People shouldn’t live like this. The current economic model forced on Haiti – minimal taxes or tariffs, an anaemic state forced to service crippling odious debt while 80% of its health, education, food and water services are run by non-Haitian organizations – has failed. It has left Haitians hungry, deprived of education, health care and the dignified living conditions to which they have a right. Despite Haiti’s cash-starved government, despite the country being one of the most privatized nations on earth, the mantra chanted by the powers financing Haiti’s coup d’états has been “privatization.” The only way more privatization can make sense in Haiti is if 8.5 million human beings are removed from the equation. Nonetheless, in February 2008, Paul Chéry, the head of the Confédération des Travailleurs haitiens, stated that Haiti’s once public telephone company, Teleco, was about to fire 800 employees.

People from privileged countries are both reviled and moved by the poverty of Haiti. They often open their wallets to support an NGO or a charity. I have done so myself because the needs are pressing. Ultimately however, this is not the best thing foreigners can do for Haiti. It is Haitian institutions that need strengthening, not foreign ones. However, twice since 1990, America, and later Canada and France shattered elected Haitian governments whose programs their own people would have supported at home. Thousands of Haiti’s most talented people were exiled, jailed or murdered. That the nations responsible for this got away with it is a sign of failure in democracy abroad, not in Haiti. Haitians have thrown off dictatorship and built a resilient progressive democratic movement capable of inspiring populations around the world. On the other hand, American, French and Canadian populations remain oblivious to what their governments are doing in Haiti. They also remain unaware that the same business philosophy working to keep Haiti’s government weak has powerful disciples in their own countries, pushing to privatize everything belonging to the collective.

The United Nations Development Program has stated that “Haiti will need more than 50 years or the equivalent of two generations to recover from its current state if the process of recovery were to start now.” Haitians know they need economic assistance to rebuild their country. While the current economic model forced on them is a failure, wealthy nations have at their disposal the capacity to help Haiti turn the corner. They also control the policies that keep Haiti in economic dependence. Policies will be changed and adequate support channelled properly when the citizens of donor nations learn what their own governments are doing, then mobilize to force a change in their destructive foreign policies.

(go to the original to view article with photos: http://www.haitiaction.net/News/HIP/3_22_8/3_22_8.html)©2008 Haiti Information Project – All Rights Reserved

The Haiti Information Project (HIP) is a non-profit alternative news service providing coverage and analysis of breaking developments in Haiti.

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