Helping Haiti: Our Dollars Aren’t Enough

On January 14, two days after the Port-au-Prince earthquake, I finally got a chance to look over my email, courtesy of a small Haitian NGO in a quiet, relatively undamaged neighborhood in the south of the city.  After reading and answering personal messages, I noticed that a lot of my mail consisted of appeals for earthquake relief.  Some messages were from people asking me to recommend ways to donate to grassroots Haitian groups.

I was moved to see how many people were eager to help, and I certainly knew how desperately Haiti needed help.  Although I was in no position then to make up a list of recommendations, by the next day my colleague Jane Guskin had posted some good information.  I strongly encourage people to donate to these and many other Haiti-based organizations.

At same time, I got a funny feeling reading all these notes and appeals.  I found myself wondering if people would think that their dollars were enough, that making a donation meant they didn’t need to do any more to help.  Because if that was the case, I thought it would almost be better not to contribute to the relief effort.

But what more can we do? people will ask.

For starters, we can help Haiti by refusing to believe the hype.  Even sitting in that little NGO I could already imagine how the politicians and pundits would exploit the disaster, using it as an excuse to attack Haiti.  And I don’t mean the bizarre fantasies of outright racists like Pat Robertson — I mean the more insidious and influential opinion pieces by liberals like Nicholas Kristof who profess sympathy for the impoverished Haitians and offer advice on how to rebuild their devastated economy.

But this advice is in fact the same advice that successive Haitian governments have followed since the time of “Baby Doc” Duvalier.  Instead of protecting agriculture, reforesting the hillsides, strengthening the infrastructure and public services, especially education, and developing the internal market, for the past 35 years Haiti has obeyed Washington’s dictates: it has opened itself up to competition from heavily subsidized U.S. agribusiness, it has slashed its meager public works programs and public services, and it has encouraged the growth of assembly plants producing for export, holding down wages to make sure these sweatshops “remain competitive.”

The results were predictable: a decimated rural economy, a virtually non-existent infrastructure, and an impoverished, overpopulated urban center so badly constructed that tens of thousands of people, at least, were certain to die when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck.

So we need to inform ourselves and not be taken in.  There’s no lack of material.  There are overviews of the economic policies our government foisted on Haiti; more detailed articles on the eradication of local livestock and the destruction of local rice production; a short history of how the United States plundered Haiti in the early twentieth century.  Back in 2004 I wrote a brief article trying to show some of the ways the U.S. government has worked to stifle the grassroots resistance.

But just being informed isn’t enough either.  We have to share the information.  We need to talk about these things to everybody we know — in conversations, on the internet, in leaflets, in letters to the editor.  Haiti is in the spotlight for now, and we have to use this short time to help people understand what U.S.-promoted economic policies mean in the real world, not just in Haiti but also in the neighboring Dominican Republic and in Mexico.  We need to get our friends and coworkers together to watch Life and Debt, a powerful documentary on what these policies did to Jamaica, just a few hundred miles west of Port-au-Prince.  And we need to think about the effect of these policies on Honduras, the site of Latin America’s latest military coup.

But this still isn’t enough.  As they say, you can’t help others if you can’t help yourself.  What can we really do for Haiti if we remain powerless in our own country?

After all, the same corporations and economic advisers that trashed Haiti’s economy also brought us our own crisis, a worldwide economic earthquake that continues to threaten much of the global population — including Haitians and ourselves — with further suffering.  If we want to have any effect on the world, we need to organize to fight back against cutbacks in our own public services and labor abuses in our own workplaces.  Why aren’t we building groups to resist foreclosures?  Where are our unemployed leagues?

And as we organize in defense of our own interests, we need to recognize that our hopes for a better world are intertwined with those of Haitians, Hondurans, and people around the world.  When people resist anywhere, we need to take action in solidarity.

In Haiti last summer thousands of assembly plant workers shut down the industrial park in the north of Port-au-Prince to demand a higher minimum wage.  In some of the most dramatic protests in this hemisphere during 2009, the strikers marched into the capital and joined with protesting students to shut down the city’s center.  The Haitian police and soldiers from a United Nations occupation force eventually managed to make the workers return to the assembly plants.

Would things have gone differently if people here — and around the world — had marched in the streets in solidarity with the Haitian workers and students?  The next time Haitian workers mobilize for a wage increase, will we be ready?

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007) and co-editor of Weekly News Update on the Americas.  He was in Port-au-Prince with a delegation when the earthquake struck.

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