Charity Gone Wrong?

A new book lays blame for Haiti’s woes squarely on the international community

From an economic and political perspective, Haiti is a basket case, dangerously close to becoming a failed state. The United Nations’ most recent annual development report reveals some startling facts: Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with only 22.5 percent of females and 36.5 percent of males over the age of 25 having a secondary education, figures equal to those across sub-Saharan Africa. Official unemployment stands at 40 percent, although many in the workforce are underemployed. The World Bank observes that Haiti has a per capita gross domestic product of $725, with over half of the country’s population living on less than $1 a day. Of the 1.5 million Haitians who were rendered homeless by the 2010 earthquake, 300,000 are still living in tents. Things could hardly be worse.

But while there is consensus that Haiti needs help, there is profound disagreement over the root causes of the country’s problems, who should assume responsibility and how we should move forward to fix it.

Many informed and concerned observers—both within and outside Haiti—are in agreement over a few issues. One is that Haiti’s governing system is very dysfunctional and needs to improve. Second, regardless of how awful the country’s early history was, harping on the past will not change the future. Third, it is up to Haitians now to unify and build a country that works, with as much external assistance as needed. David Malone, the outgoing president of Canada’s International Development Research Centre, reviewed two books about Haiti for the LRC a year ago and had this to say: “Ultimately … Haitians—particularly the Haitian political class—need to assume full responsibility for the country’s destiny, with international actors playing a clearly secondary role. How else will the country learn to stand on its own two feet?” No doubt most Haitians would agree with this.

But there is a much more radical version of events, one that lays all of Haiti’s misfortunes squarely at the feet of international governments and humanitarian organizations and demands that they now get out of the country forever. This is the position taken in the book under review here. In Haiti’s New Dictatorship: The Coup, the Earthquake and the UN Occupation, Justin Podur, a York University academic, examines the country’s post–Cold War trajectory up to the present day, and does not like what he sees. The main thrust of his argument is that Haiti’s current woes are all due to external factors, not internal ones.

The book is a cri de coeur for social justice for Haiti’s poor. It begins with a short review of Haiti’s successful struggle to break free from its colonial overlord, France. Podur taunts the French colonialists for having monopolized the economy. Once Haiti gained its independence, he notes disapprovingly that the United States and Europe began to industrialize in the 19th century, but excluded Haiti from this process.

But it is really contemporary Haiti that the author tackles with passion. Strong words are directed at the United States, France and Canada, the three countries he argues conspired to oust Aristide in 2004. Podur takes them to court for robbing Haiti’s government and its people of their “sovereignty.” International financial institutions are described as predatory, while the UN’s peacekeeping mission is labelled an “occupying” force.

While many books have been written that lionize Aristide and the Lavalas movement, what Podur produces moves into uncharted territory. He advances the theory that the entire global humanitarian world is a sham. In effect he accuses the UN and international non-governmental organizations of operating on behalf of western imperial interests in Haiti. Because some of these organizations receive funding from the U.S., Canada and France, he claims, they are only working to advance the foreign policy interests of those governments, not the people they are meant to be helping in Haiti. He does support Cuba’s assistance, but does not explain why one government’s aid is more favourable than others in the Haitian context. An analysis of which NGOs received funding from which governments would have been useful, as would some discussion of which NGOs in country were operating without any governmental funds at all, such as Doctors Without Borders.

Podur’s basic argument is that these aid organizations, implanted in Haiti after the 2004 coup that saw Aristide flee the country, further accelerated their presence by taking advantage of the devastating earthquake that struck in 2010. In his words, “the Haiti coup of 2004 and the coup regime of 2004–2006 were experiments in a new kind of imperialism … What was new was how successfully ‘human rights’ communities, progressives and radicals were co-opted into this violent coup by a few thousand dollars and some cheap rhetoric. These progressives ended up supporting a coup and occupation that was, by every single standard, far more brutal than the regime it overthrew. If they can look at this history and recognize that they were duped, perhaps they can be on the right side the next time this sort of thing is attempted.” These are serious accusations.

Podur assails the responsibility to protect doctrine, comparing it to Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden” and referring to it as “the notion that some peoples cannot govern themselves and need to be controlled externally for their own good.” The author suggests that various countries at a meeting in Ottawa in 2004 agreed to overthrow Aristide using R2P as a justification for regime change. According to the author, the “R2P doctrine was developed as an argument that national sovereignty should not be allowed to trump human rights.” While I do find Aristide’s resignation and swift departure to Africa an intriguing story that merits further critique and analysis, the author hurts his credibility by failing to correctly explain the origins and scope of the R2P doctrine. R2P was developed to rectify the international community’s horrible track record in preventing and interdicting mass atrocity crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and serious war crimes). It came about primarily because of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The idea that sovereignty entails responsibility for human rights belong to Francis Deng, a South Sudanese scholar and diplomat, and was supported by Kofi Annan, an African from Ghana. Far from being a western-constructed concept, its origins are African and it was only endorsed by all countries at the UN in 2005, one year after Aristide left office.

Unfortunately, many of the assertions laid out in Podur’s book are not evidence-based. The author draws wide assumptions that leave the reader with the notion that the entire world was focused on Haiti alone, without explaining what each country’s interests in Haiti were. As someone who has worked for a large-scale humanitarian NGO, as well as in the UN system, I was struck by the fact the book simplifies the complex and skirts around some very important questions.

For example, there are gaps in the author’s discussion of U.S. policy and interest in Haiti. Did Washington want to keep Haiti stable to prevent internal conflict that would result in migration to the United States? Or was the U.S. simply fearful of Haiti falling under the spell of Venezuela and Cuba? Or, as the book sometimes implies, did the U.S. see Haiti as a destination for its agricultural surplus and a place to set up low-cost garment manufacturing plants? Were Canada and France’s interests completely aligned with the those of the United States? Part of the problem is the author’s over-reliance on secondary sources. I waited to find the smoking gun, such as a government document—Canadian, American or French—outlining a plan to form an empire on the back of Haiti’s people. If there was such a document of proof, Podur does not provide it in his book.

According to the author, well-established groups such as Oxfam, CARE, Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and international organizations such as UNICEF form Haiti’s “new dictatorship.” Podur writes, “instead of Tonton Macoutes and the cult of personality of the Duvaliers, the symbols of this dictatorship are the blue helmets of MINUSTAH and thousands of NGOs.” In other words, he compares the UN and international aid groups to a notorious regime that was responsible for serious human rights abuses such as extra-judicial killings and the forced disappearance of civilians. Again, the author provides little to no empirical evidence to back up his claims.

International development assistance is not a zero sum game. Podur states early on: “Everybody involved with Haiti says they want to help, but those two stories are irreconcilable: if you are helping according to one, you are hurting according to another.” It would have been interesting if he had drawn comparisons to the international response to the tsunami that devastated parts of South Asia in late 2004. Did the international community save lives and help disaster-affected communities, or were they just “helping themselves” and hurting the victims? Comparisons are useful in that they reveal nuances.

But it is on the response to the massive 2010 earthquake that Podur himself and his new “imperialism” theory steps onto shaky ground. The earthquake that struck Haiti was unexpected and unannounced. As the Haitian capital of Port‑au‑Prince was flattened (including many government buildings and the UN headquarters where many people, including Canadians, were killed), the world’s disaster response machinery was kicked into high gear. Strained at the time by other large-scale conflict-induced humanitarian operations such as Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, the international community nonetheless responded quite efficiently to two serious natural disasters: the tsunami that struck Asia and the earthquake that levelled and paralyzed Haiti. Both massive responses were bolstered by civil society groups that managed to captivate the world’s attention and in many ways led governments to mobilize resources above and beyond what they have customarily done in the past.

But to Podur, this is all part of the scam. He implies that the international political economy of disaster response (and international relations in general) is all fixed. In other words, all actors (and most other national governments) are in agreement and submit to the desires and wishes of the capitalist West, led by Washington, Haiti apparently proving this. The power politics that plays out among members of the UN Security Council is dismissed. The Haitian diaspora in the West is not analyzed at great length. The author cites a student’s analysis of The Globe and Mail’s coverage of Haiti to deduce that the entire media industry across the western world was in cahoots with this plot to dominate Haiti.

Also puzzling is Podur’s criticism that immediately after the earthquake struck Haiti, the emergency clearance of the rubble-blocked streets of Port-au-Prince was carried out by the U.S. government using heavy equipment. In spite of the fact that virtually every road and transportation artery was impassable, Podur advocates that an “economy” could have been built around street clearance by giving the task to individual Haitians to do it with wheelbarrows. How much longer it would have taken to accomplish the road clearance, to say nothing of how a traumatized population could speed-jump such an initiative just as they were burying their loved ones and had been rendered instantly homeless, is not explained.

For those readers who are in search of anti-Americanism, Podur provides some interesting musings. The author argues that in the 1990s the U.S. government wanted to keep Haiti as an export market for its surplus rice production. Later he details the case of a number of female political prisoners who died of malnutrition in prison. Not wanting to criticize the Haitian prison and justice system, he argues that the deaths of these Haitian prisoners were most likely due to “vitamin B deficiency linked to U.S.-processed rice, where Haitian rice might have kept people alive.” Statements like these makes it difficult to take his book seriously and taint many of the other points he raises that are not backed by references or credible sources. Also distasteful is his overuse of the word “coupster” to describe the post-Aristide government, the Haitian business community, the UN and the NGOs.

Haiti’s real problems will not be resolved if the international community leaves the country, which is what Podur is calling for. In the age of globalization, self-reliance is not a development option. It has not worked in North Korea and it will not work in Haiti. This analysis reflects poorly on the author’s judgement and demonstrates a failed understanding of how the world functions and which paths to reconstruction and development poverty-stricken countries like Haiti need to consider. Podur dismisses tourism as a viable economic activity because it “leads to the displacement of local cultures.”

The book makes wide sweeping statements that are not backed up by facts. Haiti faces serious challenges all related to public administration: a broken justice system, poor health and educational services, corruption, poorly trained police officers and a lack of a national development plan. No magic wand exists to remedy these problems overnight. Most likely they will take generations to improve and if Haiti is to move forward it will continue to require external financial and technical
assistance.