June 8, 2009 – Mark Schuller
Haiti’s profile is increasing, and a window of opportunity suddenly flung open. Recovering from a food crisis, the global economic crisis, and four hurricanes last year, and with a new administration in Washington, there has never been a better opportunity for real change in Haiti.
On May 19, former U.S. President Bill Clinton was named U.N. envoy to Haiti, following the U.N.’s endorsement of “the Collier Report” (Collier 2009). While the Collier Report’s overall assessment is hopeful, arguing that Haiti needs new development thinking on the part of the international community, several aspects are more of the same.
Several places in the Collier Report – by British economist Paul Collier to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon – are hopeful. It stressed a unique window of opportunity, that Haiti has distinct advantages to other so-called “fragile states,” that the elected government and Haiti’s society have made some important strides on security and governance, etc. The end result is that far from being hopeless, there is considerable hope that a coherent, coordinated effort and financial support from the international community can turn Haiti around. The report also correctly grasps the immediacy of Haiti’s development challenges and outlines the need for infrastructure (particularly roads) development in a coordinated, strategic development plan. Other interesting suggestions include a market-driven reforestation process by promoting mango cultivation and a greater role for the elected Haitian government in working with NGOs in providing basic social services through a system of Independent Service Authorites (ISAs).1
Other places in the report are problematic, imperialist even, disparaging “bottom-up” approaches (p.7) and outlining that Haiti’s government needs to wait for other actors – namely the international donor community and private enterprise – to “publicly make its own decisions” (p.7). Haiti’s road network is indeed in need of repair, and must be rebuilt and maintained according to established development priorities. The model chosen by Collier as an example is mango export, which is one potential source of cash to close Haiti’s current account deficit currently on life support in the form of almost $1.7 billion in remittances per year, a figure dropping sharply following the global financial crisis.
However these roads and indeed the economic model are means, not necessarily an end in themselves. The model is more of the same export-oriented strategy that the U.S. and others have been promoting since the 1980s. Haiti’s food security depends first on Haiti’s food sovereignty. The sharp crisis acutely expressed in April 2008 with the spike in the price of rice exposes the urgent need to revitalize Haiti’s national production, a priority expressed at all levels in Haiti, from the President on down to the grassroots. As many observers have noted (e.g., Lindsay 2008; Quigley 2008; Schuller 2008-a) have noted, this crisis is a predictable result of the neoliberal model imposed by the U.S.
Travelers on Haiti’s road networks can note the economic priorities implied in its maintenance. By far the newest and best stretch of road is built around Haiti’s free trade zone, in the Northeast province. On Route Nationale #1, crews supervised by Italian company Estrella, who built the stretch cited above, worked to repair damage from last year’s battering of hurricanes. The roads are now passable to the Côte des Arcadins – containing several high-end beach resorts, frequented by U.N. workers and troops in addition to middle classes in Haiti and the Diaspora. Not a kilometer past the final high-end hotel, the VW-Beetle-sized potholes are again noticeable throughout the fertile Artibonite valley, Haiti’s “bread basket” where most of Haiti’s rice is grown. This is also where most of the hurricane damages are felt.
Developing and maintaining roads can play a positive role in revitalizing Haiti’s national production, which is Haiti’s national development priority. Rather than just get mangoes to a foreign market, these roads can lower the cost of local rice production (as well as other crops). With tariffs lower than anywhere else in the region (3%), Haiti’s food production is already at a disadvantage. The same can be said of industrialization. Rather than simply export raw materials such as individual mangoes, keeping the value added in the U.S. and other export markets, industrial investment can be linked directly to Haiti’s agricultural sector, and slow the massive migration into Haiti’s already crowded cities by providing well-paying jobs in the provinces and rebuilding a viable peasant economy. Indeed, Haiti used to have some factories transforming crops into foodstuffs, particularly under the Famosa label. Other donors, including Venezuela’s Petro Caribé, are prioritizing Haitian agricultural production in their aid.
Industrialization is the other sector – indeed the keystone – targeted in the Collier report. Especially for the poor majority, access to more jobs is indeed an urgent necessity and priority. Noting that Haiti has been given unparalleled access to preferential trade conditions through the HOPE-II Act, Collier argues that the apparel industry is the single greatest opportunity in Haiti. Haiti’s comparative advantage is twofold – its proximity to the U.S. which facilitates quick delivery in a time-sensitive industry such as apparel (p.6) as well as Haiti’s extremely low wages (p.4). Arguing that the failure of the Doha Round of the WTO could lead to a wave of “protectionism,” the HOPEII act offers a nine-year window of tax incentives for the U.S. apparel industry to swell the Haitian labor market.
Again, this is more of the same. Haiti’s dependence on low-wage workers is nothing new; what is new is the amnesia of its high social cost and its low returns. This sector is notoriously unstable; at its peak it employed 70-80,000 jobs but dwindled to 12-14,000 at the nadir of violence following Aristide’s forced removal from office – both in 1991 and 2004. Several commentators note the role that “structural violence” plays in “episodic violence” (Farmer 2004), the connection between unemployment and rates of violence and kidnapping (MADRE 2005; KOFAVIV 2005; Schuller 2008-b; Tèt Ansanm Productions 2009), including Collier himself (p.4). Sub-contracted, low-wage factory work does not contribute much to the economy besides jobs. Being exempt from taxes, it does not contribute to the financing of Haiti’s social services. According to a minister of finance, it is the sector with the least “value-added” in Haiti (cited in CoEH 2006). This is largely because of the low wages, currently 70 goud per day ($1.75), which is not enough to pay for the cost of education and health care, when considering that many pay half of their income on the rising cost of food (p.8) as well as rising housing costs. With these poverty wages investments are not possible; the majority of workers in the Port-au-Prince industrial park live in shantytowns like Cité Soleil that sprang up to meet the housing needs of low-wage workers.
Also troubling is Collier’s slipping in of privatization of two key sectors, ostensibly to capitalize on the opportunity provided by the HOPEII Act. Collier notes that both the electricity and the ports need to be privatized (at the least, operated by private contractors). This sleight-of-hand is justified by the fact that both the Port-au-Prince port (APN) and the state-run electric company (EDH) are expensive. Even though HOPEII will not contribute to Haiti’s tax base because of its exemption from tariffs, these are among the only remaining sources of income for the public sector – generating half a billion dollars in 2000 (IMF 2005). Assuming these would still be staffed by low-paid Haitian workers, the only solution privatization could entail would be to cut jobs, and it will certainly take the profit out of the country. This contradicts both Haiti’s needs as well as other platforms within the Collier report. And EDH is being developed by Cuba and Venezuela, another part of the Petro Caribe. Three plants are in varying stages of being completed in provincial locations, which would double the capacity for electricity generation. Using lower-cost Venezuelan petroleum should also bring costs down.
The report is also notable in its absence of discussing human development issues. Health care and education remain urgent priorities for the country, particularly the poor majority who can’t opt out by paying for high-cost private schools and clinics. Because of a coordinated effort led by Haiti’s elected government and supported by donors, major strides in HIV/AIDS and literacy have been made. But much more must be done in a country where less than a fifth attend high school and one in eight children die before the age of five. Access to clean drinking water is a major public health issue, as 70 percent do not have access to any treated water source (CHR&GJ, PIH, RFK Center, and ZL 2008).
Finally, the timing of the Report – and Clinton’s nomination – is unfortunate for democracy in Haiti. On April 19, a first round of legislative elections was held. Several observers noted polling places in which no more than a dozen could have voted, even in the crowded capital of Port-au-Prince. These observers, and several other commentators, thus view the official turnout statistic of 12% as unrealistic.2 Even so, this low turnout is emblematic of many things, not the least of which was the official exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas, the party of deposed president Aristide, who still plays a very central symbolic role for Haiti’s excluded poor majority. The second round is scheduled for June 21; many Haitian activists fear unrest if the international community continues to press for these undemocratic elections. Street protests (at some of which protesters threw rocks) from a vast array of groups have become an almost daily occurrence since last week, and the UN has fired many rounds of teargas and killed several protestors.
Some of the protests are focused on Haiti’s minimum wage. A coalition of groups, putting aside their divisions over Aristide, brought a bill to Haiti’s parliament to almost triple Haiti’s minimum wage, from 70 goud ($1.75) to 200 ($5) daily. Before the problematic election, the Deputies, the lower house, passed the bill. Following the publication of the Collier report, many in Haiti’s elite seized on this opportunity – as well as the elections – to discourage the Senate’s passage of the bill. On May 5, the Senate voted unanimously to pass the bill, which is long overdue according to the Haitian constitution, which mandates that it be raised periodically to adjust for rising living costs and the devaluing of Haiti’s currency. To date, presumably under pressure from Clinton, the UN, and the international community, the Préval administration has yet to publish this bill in the Moniteur, a required step in its passage.
Recommendations for action:
1)Immediate cancellation of the remainder of Haiti’s debt, without forcing Haiti to implement structural reform.
2)Support a development program that has been expressed as Haiti’s top priority, national production.
3)Encourage the publication of Haiti’s minimum wage law, passed in both houses of Parliament and in accordance with the Haitian constitution.
4)Re-do this round of elections, ensuring that all political parties are fairly represented.
Mark Schuller is Assistant Professor African American Studies and Anthropology at the Department of Social Sciences, York College, The New York City University
- This follows the assertion that the Haitian government’s problems are too “deep seated” to fix – ignoring the role that donors played by a long-term process of going around the government through directly financing NGOs. Also problematic is the inclusion of “the private sector” instead of just NGOs, paving the way to full-scale privatization. While corporate goodwill can lead to charitable initiatives, the overriding interest is in increasing market share and profit. Especially in Haiti, which has a long history of division, such initiatives are viewed with extreme suspicion. ↩
- Several radio stations have reported allegations of irregularities and fraud, such as ballot-stuffing. ↩