By Cornelius Grissiths, this post first appeared at No Sweat

Historically crippled by international debts, the middle of the twentieth century saw the IMF force Haiti (then occupied by America) to open its market to imported, highly subsidised U.S rice and sugar.

The productive country once known as ‘The Jewel of the Antilles’ was subsequently awash with cheap American grown goods. Some even reported U.S rice dumped on the shores, free to anyone who wanted it. The undermining effect on local infrastructure was deliberate, profound and lasting.

Industrial scale agriculture wiped out all local economic development. Haitian farmers, small holders and their families found themselves unemployed.

In order to survive they had to leave their communities and move into the cities, and into a cycle of poverty and exploitation that is perpetuated to this day.

The current city of Port au Prince was designed to meet the needs of around 300,000 people, yet when the earthquake struck on 12th January 2010 it was widely estimated to house 3.5 million, around 50% of the countries entire population.

More than 250,000 people lost their lives, a quarter of a million were seriously injured and over a million individuals STILL remain dependent on assistance for food, water and shelter.

Predictably our international business and political communities were clear on how to rebuild this ‘broken’ country and within days of the quake, mainstream press outlets were using the disaster to promote a United Nations plan for drastically expanding the country’s garment assembly industry, a shock doctrine to use contemporary terms. We even saw US millitary back on the island “keeping the peace”.

These plans were all ready outlined by the UN’s Paul Collier in a report entitled ‘Haiti: From Natural Catastrophe to Economic Security’ published prior to the quake in January 2009 in which he stated in explicit terms;

“In garments the largest single component of costs is labour. Due to its poverty and relatively unregulated labour market, Haiti has labour costs that are fully competitive with China, which is the global benchmark. Haitian labour is not only cheap it is of good quality. Indeed, because the garments industry used to be much larger than it is currently, there is a substantial pool of experienced labour.”

In other words, the people are desperate, wages are rock bottom and they are used to this form of wage slavery already! Indeed, despite fairly successful national campaigns by worker groups, the Haitian national minimum wage is still just $2.40 daily. Most companies evade even this pittance by shifting their pay system to piece work, making the typical wage closer to $2.00.

A year on, rubble still clogs the streets of Port au Prince, less than 15% of necessary accommodation has been built, few permanent water or sanitation facilities have been established with over a million vulnerable people still living in tents and camps. They’ve already spent one hurricane season there, another looms despite the billions donated by individuals globally.

Conversely, in the less populated, less affected northern region of the country, development is well underway on a brand new industrial park, costing a total $2.5 billion. It is being jointly developed by the Haitian government, the US government and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) with international investors such as South Korea’s Sae-A Trading, saying;

“As a company… we see this as a huge opportunity to invest and grow,” Chairman of Sae-A Trading, W.K. Kim.

With the recovery program essentially picking up where the UN and IMF left off prior to the quake, the suffering and tragedy that befell Haiti on the 12 January 2010 has been used to promote further exploitation, entrench oppression and exacerbate poverty.

As far back as March 2009, Charles Arthur of the British solidarity organisation, Haiti Support Group (HSG) told No Sweat that;

“Over four decades, the international finance institutions have repeatedly tried to force Haiti to follow a development strategy based on low-paid, labour-intensive, assembly operations. Not only has this strategy failed to bring any significant or sustainable economic development but, by focusing on assembly operations, the international planners have encouraged the donors to ignore the potential of domestic agriculture and other types of local production.”

The massive potential for re-forestation, the potential to grow national agricultural production or tourism – all things that would empower, rehabilitate and emancipate local economic development, are ignored as your government and mine seek to reinstate and perpetuate a status quo that over the past 100 years has seen Haiti become increasingly dependent on foreign aid, reliant on unnecessary imports, and unquestionably more vulnerable to natural disasters.

In February 2010, No Sweat organised a benefit for the Haitian workers group Batay Ouvriye. Speaking on the night, Andy Taylor from HSG suggested that in real terms, every pound given directly to Haitians was worth around ten pounds directed to any of the major NGO’s or charities operating in the same area. It is a sobering thought that a year on, these large organisations have achieved so little with so much.

At the same time, reports from Batay Ouvriye tell of workers sent to remote and desert-like camps, where their subsistence is by no means ensured, where the extension of the so-called ‘emergency period’ by the President imposes restrictions on basic civil rights including the rights to protest and organise resistance.

Protests are still being organised on a small scale, hundreds are still risking their lives to oppose policies that have already failed the country once before. To those brave groups we offer our full solidarity.

As the UK Government begins to slash away at basic rights and entitlements here at home, we mustn’t forget that those same priveliged people cutting benefits and dodging tax in the UK are exploiting men and women all across the world, from Cambodia to Haiti. It is one system, one global economy, one problem to solve and in the words of our own economically illiterate Chancellor of the Exchequor, we are all in this together. Don’t forget your brothers and sisters around the world as the cuts bite hard at home.

Read more about Batay Ouvriye.

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