Inter-governmental organizations and the States that form [them]… are able to turn a blind eye to the impacts of such policies because they are not forced to confront the human faces of those who die or become ill through their action.
The above quote is from the introduction to a report from Partners in Health entitled Woch nan Soley: The Denial of the Right to Water in Haiti. It describes in gripping detail how the US Treasury Department intervened to stop the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) from disbursing funds to repair water and sanitation systems in several regions of Haiti.
How did this happen? Briefly:
Haiti was approved to receive $55 million from the IDB in 1998 to address its failing water system. However, despite the fact that the IDB’s constitution explicitly forbids taking political considerations into account when determining loan distribution, the US set numerous political benchmarks for Haiti to meet before it approved sending the money.
The special counsel in the IDB director’s office, however, informed the US Treasury that benchmarks notwithstanding, there were “no legitimate technical obstacles” to releasing the money. However, he advised the US on several techniques they could use to “slow” the disbursement process, which amounted to demanding that a report be submitted to the IDB Board concerning the delay between the Board’s approval of the loans in 1998 and Haiti’s ratification of the loans in 2000. Through continued pressure, the US eventually leveraged its 30% voting power on the board to successfully delay sending the money to begin repairing Haiti’s water and sanitation systems.
Why the delaying tactic? The IDB charges a “commitment fee” for holding undisbursed loans, which grew to $1.9 million between President Aristide resuming office in February of 2001 – when the US began pursuing this delay – and November of 2001. Since this fee counted towards Haiti’s total debt balance, the $1.9 million fee disqualified Haiti from receiving the original $55 million from the IDB.
At this point, the US mission was accomplished: as a result of political distaste for President Aristide, they prevented Haiti from receiving social sector loans from the Inter-American Development Bank. This was one piece of a large, coordinated effort to undermine development in Haiti during Aristide’s rule, and thus to erode support for his Presidency.
What’s striking about this is how blatant it is. The report details memos and emails between US Treasury officials and IDB executives that openly refer to America’s goal of “put[ting] a few more large rocks in the road” toward disbursing funds for these water and sanitation projects. The US Treasury made no bones about the fact that it wanted to stop the money from getting to Haiti come hell or high water, and they succeeded only by creatively circumventing IDB procedures.
Recalling this historical episode is timely for a variety of reasons.
Observers expected Haiti’s elections past Sunday to be flawed by the exclusion of its most popular party and logistical problems due to the earthquake. The recent cholera outbreak, however, made the administration of the election much more difficult. Cholera’s spread, of course, is made possible because of inadequate water and sanitation services.
Regardless of one’s stance on whether the UN caused the outbreak, the international community – particularly the US – thus deserves substantial blame for preventing Haiti from developing a functioning water and sanitation system in the past decade. Who knows how the cholera outbreak may have played out (or not played out, as the case may have been) if Haiti’s water systems was effectively developed using these loans.
As it happened, however, international money was blocked, and Haiti’s government lacked the resources to invest in the water system itself. The lack of government financing largely resulted the fact that Haiti had to pay off $631 million in debts from 1991-2007, the vast majority of which were incurred by the US-backed dictators, Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier. In many years, debt repayments were as high as 20% of Haiti’s GDP – that would be roughly $2.5 trillion in the US (see report, below).
Prevented from domestic investment due to onerous and unjust debts, and blocked from international loans by a politically motivated United States, Haiti was forced into a position of continual under-investment. This under-investment was devastating for many social sectors, including water and sanitation.
By denying Haiti the right to clean water, we have made ourselves a major culprit in Haiti’s recent cholera outbreak.
I encourage you all to take a look at the report here: www.pih.org/page/-/reports/Haiti_Report_FINAL.pdf