Toward a True Narrative for Haiti (Part 2 of 2)

As discussed in the first installment of this two-part series, the World Bank’s report entitled “Haiti: Toward a New Narrative” points first to domestic political ills as a key source of Haiti’s struggles while ignoring entirely the destabilizing force played by the U.S. government over the last hundred years. In a similar fashion, the report also calls for a “pro-poor fiscal regime” to Haiti’s economic insecurity. Ironically, had international actors adopted such a fiscal policy toward Haiti decades ago, poverty may not have reached the current endemic levels seen today. The American Occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century was both political and economic in nature. In addition to assuming governmental authority, the Marines deployed by President Wilson in 1914 were also ordered to remove $500,000 from the Haitian National Bank and transport it to New York, thereby assigning the U.S. official control of Haiti’s finances.

Though Haiti suffered further during the Duvalier era that followed, the early 1990s finally brought cause for optimism; in 1995, for instance, the nation saw its first ever peaceful transition from one democratically elected president to another. Yet just when political development was beginning, turmoil of a different sort dealt the country a crippling economic blow. In 1995, U.S. President Bill Clinton urged Haiti to drop its tariffs on rice imported from the United States from 35 percent to less than 3 percent as part of an internationally-supported structural adjustment package. At the same time, the Clinton administration subsidized American domestic rice production, and almost overnight Haiti became one of the world’s largest importers of American rice, much of it coming from Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. Advocates of this and other trade liberalization policies imposed by international financial institutions on underdeveloped countries in the 1990s point to stabilized prices and consistent supply in Haiti’s urban centers as evidence of the success of Clinton’s rice dump. Yet the sudden glut destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of already desperate Haitian rice farmers who could compete with neither the volume nor the low prices of the U.S.-grown rice arriving daily from Miami ports.

In discussing causes of Haiti’s poverty, the World Bank report’s authors also point to Haitian government mismanagement of the enormous sums of foreign assistance pledged in the aftermath of the horrific 2010 earthquake. Indeed, in the days after January 10th, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon ordered $10 million released from the Central Emergency Response Fund, the World Bank pledged $100 million for Haitian reconstruction and recovery, and countless other multilaterals joined the organizational giants in contributing to a pot that soon contained nearly $13.4 billion. An astronomical sum had been allocated with startling efficiency, but spending it effectively soon proved to be an equally astronomical dilemma. Tons of food, water, and other supplies arrived daily at the Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, but according to Jonathan Katz’s The Big Truck That Went By, a tragic account of post-quake Haiti, many of these packages (like the ones being delivered in the above photo) never left the airport’s runway. Ultimately, domestic NGOs and government institutions received less than 1 percent of all the money pledged, the vast majority going instead to foreign organizations ill-equipped to establish conditions necessary for sustainable Haitian recovery.

As has been the case with political affairs, there is little doubt that Haitian officials must play a more responsible role in managing their country’s finances if the dream of sustainable growth is to become a reality. And in part, the World Bank report’s attempts to break from Haiti’s past and look instead toward possible future solutions is admirable, and for this it deserves praise. Yet in seeking to shift the narrative on Haiti’s poverty and instability, it opts instead for a half-truth, which in turn can lead only to half-solutions. What it does need are full solutions devised by domestic officials in partnership with responsible development actors and the faith and direct investment of institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. And while Haiti requires a renewed contract between its state and its citizens, so, too, must global actors strike a more equitable deal with Haiti in order for lasting change to be achieved.

For the first part of this two-part series, please click here.

Image: “U.S. soldiers unload food and supplies at the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010” (Credit: U.S. Navy)


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