Out of Options in Haiti? (IJDH)

Posted on September 4, 2011

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Out of Options in Haiti? (IJDH)

1 September 2011 Comments: 0

Greger Cal­han, For­mer BAI Legal Intern

Amid great fan­fare, and sur­rounded by an entourage equal to his sta­tus as newly elected Pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic, Michel Martelly vis­ited the Canaraan dis­place­ment camp out on the bar­ren out­skirts of north­ern Port-au-Prince early this sum­mer. He had a mes­sage to the approx­i­mately 30,000 fam­i­lies who eke out an exis­tence there: Fac­to­ries are coming.

Not just fac­to­ries, but hous­ing, jobs, ser­vices, invest­ment, edu­ca­tion, and opportunities—everything dreamed of but denied in the 20-cruel months which have fol­lowed Haiti’s earth­quake. Cer­tainly the promises con­tained a dou­ble edge—many res­i­dents would face evic­tion to make way for indus­trial buildings—but for those sur­viv­ing among the harsh con­di­tions of Haiti’s most for­got­ten camp, any cause for hope was wel­come and the President’s mes­sage met a sup­port­ive and opti­mistic embrace.

The larger story of Canaraan is tightly linked to its neigh­bor, camp Corail, once touted as the very model for the inter­na­tional community’s human­i­tar­ian effort in Haiti.

The Corail exper­i­ment, and its dis­mal con­se­quences, is well doc­u­mented in a recent Rolling Stone arti­cle: In short, sev­eral thou­sand earth­quake vic­tims were relo­cated from urban Port-au-Prince to tem­po­rary shel­ters planted in an empty waste­land some dis­tance north of the city.

Marked by the inef­fi­ciency, con­fu­sion, and high-handedness emblem­atic of Haiti’s stalled recon­struc­tion effort, the Corail ‘model camp’ did not go as planned, leav­ing trans­planted fam­i­lies far from eco­nomic activ­ity and at the mercy of flood­ing, land­slides, and hurricanes.

It is widely rec­og­nized as a failure.

Yet any major build­ing project, even an ulti­mately unsuc­cess­ful one such as Corail, offers hope of some­thing to those who have noth­ing, and soon enough Corail was sur­rounded by the sprawl­ing series of unplanned set­tle­ments now known col­lec­tively as Canaan or Canaraan. Like Corail, Canaraan res­i­dents are vul­ner­a­ble to wind and water and find them­selves cut off from the eco­nomic life of the city. But lack­ing Corail’s offi­cial des­ig­na­tion as a camp for inter­nally dis­placed per­sons (IDPs), Canaraan res­i­dents are rou­tinely dis­missed as mere ‘squat­ters’ unwor­thy of assis­tance how­ever press­ing their need. Ignored by both the Hait­ian gov­ern­ment itself, and the 3,000+ inter­na­tional NGOs which func­tion like a de facto shadow gov­ern­ment, Pres­i­dent Martelly’s visit to Canaraan was thus both a val­i­da­tion of resident’s exis­tence and a sign that per­haps their luck was about to change.

So far, at least, it has not.

Months after the visit, Canaraan is with­out signs of progress or con­struc­tion, and res­i­dents’ for­mer opti­mism is increas­ingly guarded, if not aban­doned out­right. The future of tex­tile fac­to­ries in Canaraan remains a ques­tion with­out an answer, but it is worth ask­ing why pow­er­ful actors, both Hait­ian and inter­na­tional, con­tin­u­ally present them as a cure-all for Haiti’s many ills. Fac­tory projects have been a sta­ple of USAID projects for a gen­er­a­tion, and enjoy the promi­nent and high-profile sup­port of fig­ures such as Bill Clin­ton and Ban Ki Moon. The Fac­tory Solu­tion pre­dates the earth­quake, and has not been shaken by it. It now rep­re­sents the sin­gle most sig­nif­i­cant inter­na­tional effort to impact the eco­nomic lives of Hait­ian people.

One need not dig too deep to find the dark side to this pro­posed answer to Haiti’s prob­lems. To make way for con­struc­tion, for exam­ple, Canaraan fam­i­lies would be dis­placed from the flat­lands into uncer­tain hous­ing on the same tree­less hills where land­slides killed 23 peo­ple just two months ago.

It is unclear how many of the res­i­dents of the sprawl­ing camp will find employ­ment in the pro­posed indus­trial com­plex, but cer­tainly fewer than the many tens of thou­sands of peo­ple who cur­rently live there. Even for those for­tu­nate enough to obtain work, for­eign owned tex­tile fac­to­ries in Haiti have devel­oped a noto­ri­ous rep­u­ta­tion for unsafe con­di­tions, work­place intim­i­da­tion, union-busting, and wages so shock­ingly low that it is vir­tu­ally impos­si­ble for even a small fam­ily to rely on them for sur­vival. (Wages amount to approx­i­mately US $3 a day for tex­tile labor, an in depth report on labor con­di­tions in Haiti can be found here).

In this envi­ron­ment of kick­backs and sex­ual harass­ment, where nearly all employ­ees labor with­out ben­e­fit of union rep­re­sen­ta­tion or health insur­ance, the prospects for Canaraan res­i­dents will likely remain grim even if the President’s promises come true.

This is not to con­demn all fac­to­ries out of hand—factory work is not inher­ently a social evil. In many societies—including our own—factory labor has pro­vided a path­way out of poverty. For their part, res­i­dents in Canaraan express a desire for jobs above all else, and are even will­ing to accept evic­tion from their homes for fac­to­ries that every­one knows will refuse to pay a sub­sis­tence wage.

Yet Canaraan res­i­dents’ desire for fac­tory work must be under­stood against a back­drop of eco­nomic and polit­i­cal forces which have left Haiti’s poor strik­ingly boxed-in on all sides by bad options. Phys­i­cally, the choice between over­crowded slums, flood-prone plains, and denuded hill­sides have left Canaraan res­i­dents per­ilously exposed to dan­ger, whether they decide to remain in the city or flee to its out­skirts. Like­wise, decades of US-driven trade pol­icy has left fam­i­lies with few mean­ing­ful eco­nomic choices except fac­tory work—effectively sell­ing their labor to north­ern busi­nesses at bar­gain base­ment prices.

Such a nar­row­ing of options is not an accident—it is the inten­tional result of express U.S. for­eign pol­icy. It may come as a sur­prise to many Amer­i­cans that the weight and pres­tige of their nation’s diplo­macy was thrown into an effort to thwart rais­ing Haiti’s min­i­mum wage above 31¢ an hour, but this is pre­cisely the sort of for­eign machi­na­tion that Haitians have been forced to live with for decades.

U.S. diplo­matic cables, recently exposed by the group Wik­ileaks, detail the extent of this med­dling, in which US mus­cle was engaged to sab­o­tage par­lia­men­tary efforts to raise wages to a level capa­ble of sup­port­ing dig­ni­fied existence.

Against this back­drop, Canaraan res­i­dents’ approval of their President’s mes­sage emerges as a ratio­nal response to a set of arti­fi­cially con­strained options. A house on a landslide-prone hill is prefer­able to a tarp on a flood-prone plain—likewise, a factory’s star­va­tion wages are prefer­able to none at all. And what other options are there? Flooded with highly sub­si­dized for­eign food prod­ucts, Haitians have watched the dec­i­ma­tion of their agri­cul­tural sec­tor. Forced to open bor­ders to rav­en­ous (and some­times preda­tory) for­eign com­peti­tors, Haiti has seen its domes­tic enter­prises left stunted.

As a result, the eco­nomic poli­cies of the world’s pow­er­ful have effec­tively pushed Haiti’s poor into an ever nar­row­ing chute—the only escape being into the arms of US, Cana­dian, or Korean tex­tile cor­po­ra­tions and their cut-rate sub-contractors in Haiti.

And with the wage increase suc­cess­fully neu­tral­ized, it’s now impos­si­ble to earn a liv­ing even at that.

Yet beneath that sur­face enthu­si­asm, Canaraan res­i­dents voice a com­plex mix of hope and res­ig­na­tion, sto­icism and anger, which is every bit as com­pli­cated as the geopo­lit­i­cal forces presently at work upon them.

Derided by the pow­er­ful as oppor­tunists and squat­ters, Canaraan res­i­dents’ most sim­ple acts of daily life—planting seeds for a dozen stalks of corn on a small plot of land, rebuild­ing the tarp roof of a Lutheran church, sell­ing goods at mar­ket to send chil­dren to school—seem like acts of defi­ance against a global eco­nomic order deter­mined to reduce peo­ple to a state of dependence.

No one, per­haps not even Pres­i­dent Martelly him­self, really knows whether the fac­tory project will ever actu­ally mate­ri­al­ize, whether its promised employ­ment will allow an escape from poverty, or if instead it will prove as illu­sory as count­less other promises made to camp res­i­dents by politi­cians, diplo­mats, NGOs, and the inter­na­tional community.

But one thing is clear, until the pow­er­ful actors pre­sum­ing to decide Haiti’s future put the auton­omy, dig­nity, and well-being of Haiti’s poor major­ity at the cen­ter of recon­struc­tion efforts—instead of sim­ply instru­men­tal­iz­ing them as a pool of cheap labor—Canaraan fam­i­lies will not be able to break out of the trap of poverty, for­eign fac­to­ries or not.

See Orig­i­nal Post: http://www.jofr.org/2011/09/01/out-of-options-in-haiti/

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