January 11, 2011
Dear BBC Radio 4,
Re.: Edward Stourton on NGOs in Haiti.
I teach at Kingston University, and have some comments about this morning’s program on ‘Haiti and the Truth about NGOs’ (Radio 4, 11 January, 9:00 to 9:45, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programs/b00xcc0k).
Edward Stourton makes some sensible points in this timely program about the failings and organizational limitations of NGOs and international agencies, but he hardly begins to address their real political purpose and impact. By depoliticizing the issues he distorts them considerably. As with previous broadcasts from the island over the past year, this BBC program once again confines Haitians to their now-standard media role - the role of dignified but helpless victims, whose stolid ability to endure harrowing levels of deprivation entitles them to a little benevolent western attention, within the usual limits. (In this program these limits are marked, quite precisely, by the passing moment in which a startled Stourton is briefly caught up in a demonstration mounted by residents of Port-au-Prince to protest the sham ‘elections’ imposed on them by the US and the UN six weeks ago).
Stourton presents the UN, for instance, as a well-intentioned but somewhat overwhelmed agency, struggling with logistical challenges and ‘accountability’ issues, but never so much as refers to the reason why the UN runs an expensive and heavily armed military mission in Haiti in the first place. Listeners to this program would never guess that the UN was brought in to occupy Haiti by the US, France and Canada, back in June 2004, in order to force the local population to accept the consequences of a violent coup d’état conducted a couple of months previously by these same countries, a coup which left thousands of people dead and most of their compatriots smoldering in perfectly understandable resentment.
Towards the end of his program, Stourton pauses to contrast the catastrophic consequences of the 12 January 2010 earthquake in Haiti with the far less severe impact of the earthquake that shook Chile in late February. He suggests, with good reason, that the difference might have something to do with the fact that Chile is a relatively wealthy country with a relatively strong government. (Similar comparisons, with respect to the impact of tropical storms, are even more illuminating when made between Haiti and Cuba). It’s all the more remarkable, then, that Stourton devotes an entire program to the failings of aid and NGOs in Haiti without pausing to consider the significance of long-standing international policies, imposed by quite specific governments, that have been deliberately designed to impoverish Haiti’s people and to weaken what’s left of its own government.
Stourton says nothing about the fact that a large majority of NGO funding in Haiti is provided by the United States, which has played an active and very deliberate role in the ‘development’ of the country over the past century, most obviously as a consequence of four far-reaching and profoundly destructive military occupations (in 1915, 1994, 2004 and now 2010). He says nothing about neo-liberal trade policies, imposed by force over these years by the US and the EU, that destroyed the livelihoods of Haitian farmers, while driving factory wages down to around 20% of their 1980 value (they currently hover around $3 US a day). He says nothing about the fact that these same foreign powers, over these same years, forced the Haitian state to lay off thousands of public sector employees, eliminate its social and development programs, and privatize all of its most valuable assets, depriving it of any significant capacity to act, to invest, or to protect itself. He doesn’t mention the fact that the US and its allies deliberately blocked international aid to Haiti during the only years in which it was governed by a mass-based political party (Fanmi Lavalas, from 2001 to 2004), bankrupting the then-democratic government and effectively cutting its spending power in half. He didn’t mention the fact that in 1991 and again in 2004 the US, in conjunction with a small group of Haiti’s richest families, twice colluded in the violent overthrow of progressive governments that were elected with landslide majorities, killing thousands of democracy activists in the process. In 2004, many high profile NGOs that are dependent on US or UK funding (e.g. Christian Aid, Action Aid, etc.) effectively condoned the coup that marked the end in Haiti, for the time being, of mass participation in formal democracy.
During the same 20-year period that the US energetically helped to dismantle what remains of Haitian sovereignty and democracy, a plethora of mainly US-funded NGOs descended on the country to take over, in ways that are not just fragmented and inefficient but also often thoroughly reactionary, most of the functions that elsewhere would remain the responsibility of the state.
Is it surprising, then, that most Haitians look at these NGOs, rather more shrewdly than Stourton himself, as the ‘humanitarian face of imperialism’? You wouldn’t get any sense of this from listening to Stourton’s program, though, since as usual Haitian people aren’t given any opportunity to stray from the standard script. They’re invited to complain about the (undeniably scandalous) fact that they’ve received little or none of the billions promised by foreign donors, and that more than a million people continue to live in miserable squalor a full year after the quake. They are allowed to evoke the hardships of their daily lives, and to present themselves as deserving recipients of foreign charity. On this occasion, one of their advocates is even allowed to refer to the flagrant gulf that separates affluent and security-obsessed foreign aid-workers from the destitute people they have ostensibly come to help. This is indeed better than nothing, and thus better than usual. But they clearly aren’t entitled to talk about the ways the aid agencies, and the countries that fund them (and that eventually send their journalists to investigate them), have so blatantly undermined Haiti’s own democracy, sovereignty and capacity to act.