Saturday, February 27, 2010

From rubble to recovery

From rubble to recovery

Published: February 13, 2010

Foreign Direct Investment

(Read the original article here)

A huge recovery challenge lies ahead for Haiti after its devastating earthquake, but could the rebuilding programmes bring about an essential economic restructuring? Michael Deibert reports from Port-au-Prince.

The incremental economic progress that Haiti, an impoverished Caribbean nation of 9 million people, had been experiencing over the past several years was brought to a cataclysmic halt late on the afternoon of January 12, when a 7.0 earthquake centred just south of the capital city sent the pillars of state and industry crashing to the ground in a heap of dust.

In a matter of seconds, Haiti’s Palais National, Palais de Justice, Parliament and many government ministries were either totally or partially destroyed. The top command of the UN mission, whose troops had been supporting the government of president René Préval since his 2006 election, lost their lives, along with an estimated 200,000 Haitians. Factories collapsed onto their owners and workers alike, and entire neighbourhoods tumbled down the brooding mountains that surround the capital city’s bay.

Further devastation

Haiti, already desperately poor but having experienced its first sustained period of political calm and stirrings of foreign investment interest in many decades, seemed as if it would be reduced to an even graver level than it had been before: mortally wounded, traumatised, ungovernable. In addition to the buildings destroyed, Haiti had also lost some of those best placed to aid its tenuous economic recovery, among them one of the country’s most respected economists, Philippe Rouzier, as well as Jean Frantz Richard and Murray Lustin Junior, the director-general and director of operations, respectively, at the Direction Générale des Impôts, the country’s main tax office in the capital.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, as of early February at least 460,000 people were still living in 315 spontaneous settlements throughout Port-au-Prince, while the World Food Programme said that more than 1.6 million people had received ­supplies since the start of the earthquake response.

Economic focus

But Haiti’s industrious population knows a little something about struggle and perseverance, even in the face of such a devastating tragedy. Within days of the earthquake, the country’s market women, taxi drivers and other labourers had returned to the streets, resuming commerce among the hundreds of thousands camped out between the shells of ruined buildings. Capital residents began to flow back into Haiti’s countryside, seeking family solace among the loss.

From a terrible misfortune, some hoped that Haiti might still have set in motion the seeds for a new beginning. Despite the ousting of a popular prime minister last autumn, Haiti’s modest economic engine, buoyed by an extended period of relative political tranquillity and an improved security situation, continued chugging along under a new prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, seemingly bearing out a December 2008 UN report asserting that it was striking “how modest are the impediments to competitiveness relative to the huge opportunities offered by the fundamentals” in the country.

Last year, billionaire George Soros’s Economic Development Fund announced plans to create a $45m industrial park in Cité Soleil, one of the capital’s poorest neighbourhoods, while two new hotels were set to open along the country’s lush south coast.

At the same time, the OTF Group, a competitiveness consulting firm credited with breathing new life into Rwanda’s tourism, coffee and agro-industry sectors following the country’s 1994 genocide, praised the business opportunities in Haiti. Focusing on several key “growth clusters” to drive economic development, it hoped to help create 500,000 jobs in Haiti within three years.

Following the earthquake, though reassessed, the group said its conclusions did not necessarily need to be shelved, just pushed back for six months to a year.

“The outmigration from [Port-au-Prince] is a huge opportunity to reverse the migration trends of the past two decades,” says OTF director Robert Henning. “If reconstruction can create opportunities and jobs outside of the capital, this will achieve an important goal of redistributing the influence and economic weight of Haiti.”

Trade possibilities

Though the country’s interior has been severely deforested over the past few decades, local groups, such as the Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongrè Papay, have worked for years on reforestation and irrigation projects and some areas, such as the Artibonite Valley, remain relatively fertile. With Port-au-Prince’s harbour severely damaged and the likelihood of recurrent large-scale earthquakes extremely high, according to the US Geological Survey, international attention has for the first time begun to look seriously at developing Haiti’s long-neglected interior with manufacturing and agricultural initiatives.

A long border with neighbouring Dominican Republic, which lends itself to the possibility of free-trade zones, and possible ports that might conceivably be expanded around the country – including Miragoâne (in the country’s west), Saint-Marc (in the middle region) and Cap-Haïtien (in the north) – would seem to support this possibility for future investment.

Following a decision last year by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank to cancel $1.2bn of Haiti’s debt – with the latter institution approving an additional $120m in grants for investments in key sectors such as infrastructure, basic services and disaster prevention, the G-7 countries told Haiti after a post-earthquake meeting in Canada in February that the country’s debts to the body did not need to be repaid.

New beginning

None of this in any way minimises the grievous shock – physical, psychological and economic – that Haiti’s people and its government have suffered because of those terrible moments in January. But, day by day, it appears to be picking itself up, dusting itself off and trying to decide where it will head from here.

“The extent of this disaster is also due to the fact that this country has not been managed, or rather has been ill-managed, for the past 50 years,” says Michèle Pierre-Louis, a civil society leader and former prime minister of Haiti. “Maybe after mourning our dead and saving the lives of the survivors, we should start thinking about ways to put together our energies, our solidarity, our creativity to rebuild our capital under some kind of strong leadership… [which] could eventually lead to rebuilding the entire country. Now is the time.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Haitians Find Help Through the Airwaves

My interview (along with Emilio San Pedro) on WNYC's The Takeaway this morning on the importance of Haitian radio can be heard here.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Thoughts on recent Haiti commentaries

As a progressive reporter and analyst working on the ground in Haiti, I have gotten fairly used to reading ignorant commentary on the Caribbean nation of 9 million over the years.

Last month, the dust had not even settled from the earthquake that destroyed large sections of Port-au-Prince and killed some 2000,000 people when the voices of intolerance and opportunism set about savaging a country that was already on its knees.

The irony of Rush Limbaugh - a man so obese that he can barely stand maligning a nation of the chronically underfed - telling listeners not to support the hundreds of thousands made homeless by the quake met the venomous snake-oil rhetoric of Pat Robertson, who denounced those buried under the rumble for having made “a pact with the Devil.” Further libeling the dead, the American basketball player Paul Shirley wrote that “shouldn’t much of the responsibility for the disaster lie with the victims of that disaster,” a remark that got him wisely fired by ESPN.

Unfortunately, though, the right are not the only ones whose views of Haiti seems to have been colored by political prejudice and misunderstanding. In recent years, a small but noisy sector of the international left has been equally irresponsible in its commentary about Haiti, with some commentators wishing to see all foreign countries in terms of facile good guy-bad guy scenarios

Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Mark Weisbrot - a man so intellectually lazy he often gets the basic details of Haiti’s history wrong - characterizes despotic former Haitian ruler Jean-Bertrand Aristide as “Haiti's democratically elected president...kidnapped by the US and flown to exile in Africa,” Naomi Klein, interviewing Aristide in his gilded South Africa exile (where the South African government underwrites his expenses to the tune of that of a government minister), wrote that Aristide is proof of her own anti-globalization credo, as she credulously repeats Aristide’s contention that he was ousted because of his resistance to the “privatization” of Haiti’s state industries. Writing in the Guardian after having spent only two months in Haiti and having written of his support of Mr. Aristide before having ever set foot in the country, the academic Peter Hallward concludes that “Aristide's own government...was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering in resentment.”

These assertions would likely be news to the people I spoke to in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, when the city was still reeling from the impact of the quake, the fires still smoldering and the bodies still perfuming the air with the sickly-sweet decay of human flesh. To the people I did speak to in places like the capital’s crowded Delmas road, along, the busy Route Freres and even in Aristide’s former home of Tabarre, the reaction to the former president’s January offer to be flown to Haiti veered between disparaging comments that Aristide was a criminal to bitter observations that Aristide should buy a ticket and come dig with his hands through the rubble like everyone else, rather than waiting to be ferried home like a returning emperor. During a visit to Haiti’s countryside last summer, I found the response to the mention of Aristide’s name even more hostile. The president’s Fanmi Lavalas party, badly divided and unwisely banned from upcoming legislative elections, can still rouse a few thousand people for street rallies in the capital, but the movement seems largely a spent force and Haitians seem largely to have moved on.

In Haiti, a small, poor country where few people can speak or write English proficiently, the left, like the right, seems to feel that they have found the perfect canvas on which to outline their own theories and agendas, no matter how irrelevant they may be to the struggles of Haitians as whole. This cock-eyed view of history is only heightened by the habit of visiting foreigners to surround themselves with the capital’s political class, a strata of society that the Haitians themselves have learned to despise to such a degree that many poor people I spoke to last month openly hoped for a U.S. occupation of the country (something I think would be a mistake).

Perhaps the palme d'or of recent ignorant commentary on Haiti may belong to Lawrence Harrison, director of the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School of International Affairs at Tufts University and the former director of the USAID mission to Haiti from 1977 to 1979.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Harrison lays the blame for Haiti’s ills at the altar of the country’s indigenous religious construct of vodou, opining that “its followers believe that their destinies are controlled by hundreds of capricious spirits who must be propitiated through voodoo ceremonies...a species of the sorcery religions that Cameroonian development expert Daniel Etounga-Manguelle identifies as one of the principal obstacles to progress in Africa.”

Further, Harrison informs his readers, following the overthrow of the French in 1804, free Haitians “were left with a value system largely shaped by African culture” and quotes the economist Sir Arthur Lewis (“himself a descendent of African slaves”) as saying that former slaves “inherited the idea that work is only fit for slaves."

Let me say this plainly: Lawrence Harrison would collapse of exhaustion if he put in half a day’s work that I have seen peasant farmers and urban laborers put in during the course of a single day in Haiti. In Haiti, securing the most basic necessities of existence is a daily, titanic struggle that people like Harrison, Limbaugh,Weisbrot et al, secure behind their desks and probably never having had to put in a strenuous day’s work in their lives, will never understand as they hide behind their pompous theories.

Vodou and its value system, in the nearly 15 years I have been traveling to Haiti, are no more arcane or nonsensical than the cosmology of Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Hinduism. I have, in fact, seen vodou act as an important spiritual succor for people in a place where death, premature and unnatural, is a blighted daily companion, and a sense of disconnect from one's heritage a real concern.

Several years ago, while chatting with a vodou priest known as Ti Papi in the crowded Bizoton quarter of Port-au-Prince, he told me the following:

When there's tires burning in the streets, when there's coup d'etat, when there's everything else, we are still doing our ceremonies, we are still beating our drums. Politicians come and go but voodoo is always here. If it wasn't for voodoo, we would already be occupied, either by the Americans or the Dominicans. Voodoo? It's been our sovereignty, over the years.

It’s a Haitian point of view, like the political point of view of Haiti’s people, that outsiders would do well to listen to.

Between the corrosive racism of some on the right and the tired rhetoric of some on the left - each based in no way in the reality on the ground in Haiti - we have an irresponsible, ahistorical approach to the country that in no way helps to ameliorate the situation of Haiti’s poor majority. When novice commentators try and shove Haiti into their own unsophisticated binary worldview, it damages, rather than advances, the cause of Haiti’s poor. By attempting to bestow a sheen of legitimacy on a disgraced leader or by maligning Haitians’ spiritual beliefs, these commentators, far from engaging in genuine inquiry and scholarship, are in fact showing the most grievous disrespect to Haiti and its people.

Haiti deserves better than this, and it is time that foreign commentators on the country actually spent some time there, away from their comfortable desks and apartments, speaking to actual Haitians in the back of sweltering camionettes, in crowded shantytowns and in hardscrabble peasant fields, far away from the echo-chamber of the intelligentsia in which so much of the right and the left often marinate.

The Haitians, the everyday Haitians who have struggled so long against such great odds to build a decent country and to provide for their families despite so many obstacles, deserve to have their voices heard without the filter of the prejudices of perhaps well-meaning but ignorant foreigners. We owe them at least that, I think. The Haitians have a lot more to teach us about their country than we can teach them.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Haitian Radio Returns to the Air

Haitian Radio Returns to the Air

By Michael Deibert

Posted Friday, Feb. 5, 2010


(Read the original article here)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti's radio journalists, many of whom have long experience of operating under dictatorships and elected governments with little tolerance for critical press coverage, know a thing or two about adversity. But nearly a month ago, when Haiti's capital was devastated by an earthquake that leveled large sections of the city and killed at least 150,000 people, local reporters were suddenly faced with a whole new set of challenges.

"We try and orient people to where aid is being distributed, and every day we announce messages about people who are still missing," says Wendell Theodore, the silken-voiced news director of Radio Metropole in the capital's Delmas region. His own home destroyed, Theodore now broadcasts the names of the missing from under a tree in the radio station's yard, next to the tent he has slept in since his house collapsed.

"I saw our building shake," says Rotchild Francois, director of the capital's RFM radio in the Pétionville district, who was at his desk in the studio when the earthquake struck and dashed into the street with a dozen other employees. The station lost a reporter in the quake and was knocked off the air for five days. Reporters from Radio Galaxie, Radio Magic 9, and Radio Télé Ginen were also killed.

Francois now spends his days combing the capital, trying to paint an audio picture of what is happening and to get information on the air about where aid is being distributed, the location of feeding and medical centers, and other important information. Many of the station's employees, fearful of aftershocks, refuse to enter the building.

"People come here to send messages to their relatives that they are OK or to have people call to say that they are OK," says Francois. "We do that every day."

Why journalists might be fearful was illustrated vividly when I was in the studio of Radio Kiskeya interviewing its director general, Marvel Dandin. As Dandin explained how the station, which had been knocked off the air for a week, had resumed broadcasting on an abbreviated schedule, a brief aftershock set the damaged, cracked building trembling and sent people running from the studio into the street.

Radio has historically played an important and politically significant role in Haiti's civic life, where newspapers are few and far between and difficult to decipher for a population often unable to avail themselves of proper schooling.

Radio Soleil, a Catholic station, played a key role in spreading information during the ouster of the Duvalier family dictatorship, which ruled Haiti from 1957 until 1986, during which time freedom of the press was practically nonexistent.

Independent journalism was a dangerous business during the revolving military juntas that controlled the country after the Duvalier regime collapsed. Under the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in office from 2001 until 2004, reporters were physically attacked by government partisans while covering demonstrations; they were also imprisoned and forced to flee the country as a result of threats against their lives.

Several journalists have been killed in Haiti in recent years, among them Radio Haiti-Inter Director Jean Dominique in April 2000, Radio Echo 2000 reporter Brignol Lindor in December 2001, and Jacques Roche, a TV host, poet, and an editor at the daily newspaper Le Matin, who was kidnapped and murdered in 2005.

But despite powerful forces arrayed against independent reporting, Haiti's journalists have persisted in the face of such adversity—good preparation, some might say, for today's challenges.

"I ran to my house and found that my wife had died," says Marcus Garcia, director of Radio Mélodie FM, a station that has continued broadcasting with the aid of generator despite the lack of electricity or telephone service. "But life has to continue, and if my wife was alive, she would want me to continue as I am doing, working for the people."

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Michael Deibert interviewed on KDVS

My interview on KDVS radio's It's About You, hosted by France Kassing, was broadcast today and can be heard here. The show also features a section about Howard Zinn and an interview with Nick Buxton about the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen. My portion begins around the 30 minute mark.