Haiti’s Future: Repeating Disasters

[1] My first response to seeing a series of pictures of the decimated Port-Au-Prince after the January 12th earthquake was "How will they build factories now?"1 Prior to that date many of us concerned with the desperate state of things in Haiti had been focused on the man-made disaster that was currently in the making — the implementation of "new" development plans for the fragile republic based on the work of British economist Paul Collier. In 2009, the United Nations and the newly named Special Envoy Bill Clinton endorsed the Collier Report "Haiti: from Natural Catastrophe to Economic Recovery" as the answer to the country's economic problems.


Haiti's Future: Repeating Disasters by Gina Athena Ulysse 

[2] The plan mainly called for the country to open access to the world market by: 1) using its cheap labor to attract foreign investments in the export assembly industry or garment production, which would be carried out in Free Trade Zones; and 2) prioritizing the production of selected agricultural goods for export, mainly mangoes. In Haiti and its diaspora, there was substantive opposition to this plan on the ground, though this was virtually ignored in mainstream media. Haitian grassroots organizations and long-term advocates called for a more humane approach that would be less detrimental to Haiti's future. The Collier plan would only maintain the recirculation of foreign capital. Those fortunate enough to land one of the 125,000 jobs the plan sought to create would have to contend with exploitative labor relations aimed at reinforcing the concentration of wealth at home and abroad.

[3] Even before the earthquake struck the country, Haiti expert, sociologist Alex Dupuy had denounced the plan because it was not sustainable. Its aim was extractive and it would "do nothing more than maintain Haiti's position in the international division of labor for international and domestic investors." Such approaches, he argued in a review of the impact of the manufacturing industry during the Duvalier era, have failed Haiti in the last forty years.2 This is evident in the documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women Pillars of the Global Economy (co-directed by anthropologist Mark Schuller and Renée Bergan) that chronicles the experiences of five women who have worked in this industry. As the film's description reads, "each woman's personal story explains neoliberal globalization, how it is gendered and how it impacts Haiti: inhumane working/living conditions, violence, poverty, lack of education and poor health care."3 The film also demonstrates how women confront challenges through collective activism. At a screening of the documentary at the 21st Haitian Studies Associations Meeting, Dupuy noted this film "Poto Mitan should be required viewing for Bill Clinton, Paul Collier and indeed all economists who craft economic policies for the international financial institutions for Haiti."4

[4] Dupuy questioned the UN's logic in promoting Collier's archaic development model. He writes "despite the failure of these policies to generate sustainable development, reduce unemployment, and improve the standard of living of the majority of Haitians, the major powers and the international financial institutions continue to advocate them as the solution to Haiti's chronic underdevelopment and poverty."5 In the aftermath of the quake, Dupuy­ — who has written several books and numerous articles6 — restated his long held belief that "Haiti needs to break with the policies advocated by the major powers and international financial institutions that have proved so disastrous for the Haitian economy."7

The horror that unfolded five months ago was the continuation of relations between nation states established by a history of colonialism.

[5] Indeed, if the 7.0 earthquake that devastated the republic revealed anything else, it was that the country's economy is in shambles. Its extreme inequity best characterized by the tag — poorest nation in the western hemisphere — ceased to be cliché and became concrete. This is what $2 a day looks like. Of course this was not news to those of us who know Haiti; it has always been the case. The horror that unfolded five months ago was the continuation of relations between nation states established by a history of colonialism.

[6] Underdevelopment and poverty have been key features of Haitian life since long before the revolution and were fermented after its inception as a free black state in 1804. In the post-revolution period the new republic became a geopolitical pariah. The isolation further crippled its flailing economy as it incurred foreign debt to pay an indemnity to France for its loss of property. The brutal U.S. occupation in the next century furthered Haiti's centralization in the capital, weakening regional institutions and economies. In recent decades "development" packages from international funding institutions and their concomitant structural adjustment policies only served to reinforce Haitians' daily suffering. Aid from foreign governments not only promoted NGOs but also did so in ways that undermined the weak Haitian state. Haitian governments, in turn, have complied with such agreements at the expense of its citizens.

[7] This global exploitation was recreated at the national level. Historically, the Haitian state has both exploited and ignored the plight of the nation. In "Haiti's Nightmare and the Lessons of History," anthropologist, Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes that the state has no legitimacy since it has failed to maintain a social contract with its majority population.8 They have lived without basic human rights including potable water, food, health care and education, all of which are guaranteed by the constitution. The minimum wage that was increased to $3 a day in June 2009 can hardly defray one's daily cost of living.9 Moreover, there is no social welfare net. This structural neglect was made apparent in January as the government, clearly incapable of handling this catastrophe, waited for external assistance. There was no emergency response plan in place, though years before a study of seismic activity had predicted this disaster. Other studies are predicting more activity that will further fracture parts of the republic. There is still no plan.

Yet, this time, the situation in Haiti is challenging the international community to rethink their concepts and applications of aid and to discern these from racist ideologies that impede sustainable development efforts from taking hold.

[8] The underestimated death toll from the quake and its aftermath is 300,000. People in affected areas insist the number is closer to 500,000, and unaccounted bodies still remain under rubble. Those who survived, in many instances, express a will to live that must not be in vain. It is our duty not only to assure that Haiti will never be the same, but that it gets on a more democratic course. The quake, which disaster capitalists have seized upon as an opportunity to further their own goals, could be used quite differently not only to imagine a different country, but to realize that another Haiti is possible10 as grassroots organizations and their progressive advocates continue to insist. This will not occur unless reconstruction efforts break from development models of the past.

[9] Indeed, Haiti, once more, is being called upon to lead changes in the world. Two centuries ago, the island precipitated a disorder in things colonial that ultimately ended slavery and France's hope of enlarging its empire in the New World. Yet, this time, the situation in Haiti is challenging the international community to rethink their concepts and applications of aid and to discern these from racist ideologies that impede sustainable development efforts from taking hold. Unless they think historically and explore the interconnections between the past and the present to find new solutions, all efforts to get Haiti right are simply doomed. This moment is especially critical because the Haitian state is being called upon to do something it has never done — have and show a responsibility to the entire nation. Nothing makes this more apparent than the government's inaction around the tent cities.

[10] Concrete steps must be taken to assure that the poor and nameless have advocates in discussions and reformulations of reconstruction plans. They cannot continue to be casualties of non-representation. In Haiti, grassroots organizations are rightfully wary of being bypassed by the Haitian government again. They want a state that is accountable to its citizens, not the international community. Yet, they are also aware that ultimately decisions concerning Haiti's future remain in the hands of donors and international financial institutions. Civil society is taking to the streets in provinces demanding a change that will foster a more inclusive Haiti where everyone has equal access to health, food, education and housing among other needs.

[11] Within weeks of the quake, INURED (the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development — full disclosure, I am a board member) conducted a rapid assessment of the impact of the quake. Trained community research teams gathered 962 responses from inhabitants of Cité Soleil. According to the Voices from the Shanties report published in early March 2010,11 the most critical issues were: 1) aid distribution; 2) rape and other forms of violence; 3) lack of adequate shelter; and 4) medical care (physical and mental). As of June 25, five months after the quake, reports and articles are circulating that Haiti rebuilding efforts have stalled. Hurricane season has started and the displaced remain in limbo. Again, the fact that little has been accomplished does not surprise us who know Haiti. As previously stated, the state is being called upon to do something it has never done, be responsible for its entire citizenry.  For changes to occur first and foremost the Haitian government must be held accountable to its majority population.

[12] As I wrote in February (see Additional References below), if you remain concerned about Haiti, keep asking questions. We must be vigilant as external pressure is needed now more than ever. So make calls, text, tweet, send letters to local, national and foreign officials, as well as international funding agencies to demand the following:

  • Security, shelter and medical care must be delivered to those in need
  • Forgiveness of Haiti's debt
  • Higher education in Haiti must remain central to reconstruction efforts
  • Public debates (at home and abroad) concerning Haiti's future rebuilding projects that actually include real oppositional voices and not the usual suspects who claim to represent the nameless
  • Official dialogues between local grassroots organizations and government
Additional References
  • Bergan, R. and M. Schuller, Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. U.S., Documentary Educational Resources, 2009.
  • Schuller, Mark. 2009. "Haiti Needs New Development Approaches, Not More of the Same," http://www.avec-papiers.be/Home/?p=802. Accessed 6/25/2010.
  • Ulysse, Gina Athena, "Why Representations of Haiti Matter Now More than Ever," NACLA Report on the Americas. Vol 43, No 4. July/August 2010.
  • Ulysse, Gina Athena, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-athena-ulysse/haitis-future-a-requiem-f_b_448967.html February 4, 2010.
  • Ulysse, Gina Athena, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-athena-ulysse/haiti-will-never-be-the-s_b_430842.html January 21, 2010.

Gina Athena Ulysse is Associate Professor of African-American Studies, Anthropology and Feminist Gender and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. A poet as well as performance artist, she has toured colleges and universities with her one-woman show "Because when God is too Busy: Haiti, me & THE WORLD." The Haitian-born Ulysse has been blogging on Huffington Post since January. Visit her website at www.ginathenaulysse.com.




1. Parts of this article have been previously published in pieces on Huffington Post.

2. Alex Dupuy, "The Collier Report: Old Wine in New Bottles or Déjà Vu All Over Again." Paper presented at the Haitian Studies Association Meetings in Indiana University. November 12, 2009.

3. http://potomitan.net

4. Commentary on Poto Mitan. Haitian Studies Association 21st Annual Meeting. Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. November 13, 2010.

5. Ibid.

6. Cf. Alex Dupuy, Haiti in the World Economy: Class, Race and Underdevelopment since 1700, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989) and Haiti and the New World Order: The Limits of the Democratic Revolution, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996).

7. Alex Dupuy, "The Collier Report: Old Wine in New Bottles or Déjà Vu All Over Again" Paper presented at the Haitian Studies Association Meetings in Indiana, 2009.

8. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti's Nightmare and the Lessons of History: Haiti's Dangerous Crossroads, ed. by Deidre McFayden (Boston: Southend Press, 1995.)

9. It must be noted that there was a lot of unreported protests around this issue. As Mark Schuller writes, "A coalition of groups put aside their divisions over Aristide to bring a bill to Parliament that would have tripled the wage from $1.75 to $5.00 a day. In the end President Préval objected to this increase.

10. http://www.otherworldsarepossible.org/alternatives/another-haiti-possible

© July 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 7