Development Is Political

We had a wonderful series of events last week with Lavarice Gaudin, director of operations for the What If? Foundation. Lavarice braved 13 talks over 3 days, which included a panel, public speeches, and class appearances.

Although he offered unique insights each time, several common themes emerged. This post picks up one of those themes for further discussion.

Power and Politics in the US-Haiti Relationship

“The US relationship with Haiti is like somebody who breaks your legs, and then asks: why are you crippled?” – Lavarice Gaudin

Lavarice Gaudin at the University of Minnesota. Photo Credit: Paul Miller.

I want to elaborate on this quote using three examples. The first illustrates what happens when the US unilaterally imposes its will on Haiti in the name of helping. The second conveys how the US often employs blame-the-victim rhetoric after these impositions of will. Finally, the third shows how the US government sometimes inadvertently acknowledges the harmful impact of its own policies.

Creole Pigs: Destroying the Bank Account for Haiti’s Rural Poor

Lavarice shared the following anecdote to illustrate one of the worst sides of US engagement with Haiti. In the 1970s and 1980s, the US sought to safeguard against a global swine flu epidemic.

As part of assessments in several countries, the US determined that as many as 1/3 of Haiti’s pigs were sick. Aggressively pursuing its goal of containment, the US “pressur[ed] Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier into slaughtering virtually all Creole pigs.” USAID then sent pigs from Iowa to Haiti to replace the 1.3 million it had just sentenced to death.

The imported pigs were ill-suited to Haiti. Their need for pricy vaccinations and their dietary selectivity earned them the title, “le prince aux quatre pieds” (the four-footed prince). Shortly thereafter, all these pigs died off.

This dealt an enormous blow to Haiti’s farmers: in addition to losing an important source of protein, they lost their bank account for emergency spending. This anecdote not only illustrates American arrogance, but also capture the consequences that result when USAID intervenes unilaterally, without meaningful Haitian input.

Lack of Clean Water Infrastructure in Haiti: A Problem of Our Own Making?

As we wrote last December, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) approved a loan for Haiti in 2000 to improve water and sanitation infrastructure. The US illegally blocked the loan as part of an “unjust aid embargo” based on distaste for the incoming government in Haiti and baseless claims of electoral fraud.

Based on this action alone, the US deserves harsh criticism. However, recent actions have compounded US culpability in this arena.

After cholera struck Haiti in 2010, the UN became the focal point of an international investigation into the origin of the outbreak. The UN-commissioned report on the topic heavily emphasized “risk factors” like “poor sanitation infrastructure (PDF).” In doing so, it sought to downplay the overwhelming evidence suggesting the UN introduced the disease.

The diabolical aspect of US/UN[i] action here is this. Experts linked the spread of cholera to the under-development of clean water systems in the same region of Haiti the IDB loan would have targeted. Partners in Health even directly related the outbreak to the blocked loans from the IDB. In other words, the international community is using a problem that it perpetuated to excuse itself from responsibility for cholera.

Regular Rice Distribution: Good Then, Bad Now?

USAID/Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) released an interesting document in April of 2010. It contained the following quote qualifying its use of emergency food after the quake:

“Large-scale distributions of food aid not procured in Haiti (PDF) would have significant negative impacts in the medium and long term…”

Just one month prior, it had become politically defensible – indeed, even fashionable – to acknowledge that regular food imports harmed Haiti. This transition occurred when Bill Clinton testified before Congress that rice imports and free food aid destroyed Haiti’s agriculture system.

It’s tempting to say that the USAID/FEWS network was simply echoing new advances in knowledge. Unfortunately, that would also be untrue. The basic truth that providing a good for free – or subsidizing it – disadvantages those producing it at full cost is a timeless economic insight. In fact, this insight was the basis for a 1980s US law restricting US aid from supporting poor country farmers who might compete with US agricultural exports.

Therefore, it’s incorrect to understand the new policy statement as the US learning from the experience of having wrecked Haiti’s agriculture. Rather, agricultural dumping under the guise of “aid” used to be an important economic endeavor for the US. Now, however, we’re focused on using our aid for other business purposes, such as replacing Haitian seed distribution networks with Monsanto seed. Because of this, USAID can be honest in discussing the ramifications of food aid imports, whereas it couldn’t before.

What’s a non-profit to do?

The sad truth is that many NGOs who seek to help Haiti reinforce these patterns, but there are easy steps that can be taken to avoid this. These steps begin with recognizing the role that politics and power play in the relationship between the US and Haiti

If a group of people have historically been exploited for profit, then it’s impossible to better their circumstances without affecting power relations. Thus, if an NGO is unwilling to consider issues of power – and the associated political realities – it can’t contribute to meaningful, structural changes.

One example of this, directly related to Lavarice’s work, is that many NGOs donate food from the US to Haiti. Because this policy was crafted to support US farmers, and is now acknowledged by its creators to be harmful, there’s no excuse to continue donating food in the name of helping Haiti. Without embracing the political history of this approach, however, it’s much harder to understand why it’s so harmful.

The Haiti Justice Alliance cultivates a keen awareness of issues of power and politics. Promoting this awareness among people in the US is central to our mission, and it reflects the values of our partner groups.

Lavarice’s words last week underscored the need to take this approach. In our next post, we’ll further discuss how to translate appreciating the importance of power and politics into actionable steps to help create a better future for Haiti.


Click here to follow the work of the Haiti Justice Alliance on Facebook.

[i] While the US and the UN mission can’t be conflated, the US actively pushed to establish the mission, and the US views it as a “bargain” way to realize its policy goals in Haiti.

4 Responses to Development Is Political

  1. Sinèji Ayiti says:

    Mèsi anpil frè ak sè nou yo pou bon travay sa a nou ap fè a.

    Kenbe fèm pa lage!

  2. Very sad but enlightening post on U.S.- Haiti relationships. Thanks!

  3. Sharon Kaiser Miller says:

    Great insight into a complicated, confusing situation. Lavarice Gaudin was interesting, insightful and offered hope for Haitians using Haitian-directed solutions–something that the Haiti Justice Alliance has done a great job promoting.

  4. Nathan Yaffe says:

    Thanks to all of you for your supportive comments! Hearing that these posts are beneficial to people is great motivation to continue with them.

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