In recent weeks my fellow campaigners and I have been running a series of workshops for students focusing on Haiti. Two of our team, Rob and Ben, gave a workshop to Bristol University HUB (an activist network) and Matt and myself spoke with the politics society of Exeter University. What we learned was quite revelatory, both for the students and for ourselves. From both our workshops, and from our face-to-face campaigning work, it became clear that a distinct lack of understanding is present amongst the general population about, firstly, the systems of structures that have left Haiti in such a precarious state of underdevelopment, and secondly, how those structures have created a unique vulnerability to natural disaster.
For many of the people we spoke to, Haiti's troubles began with the earthquake that took place on the 13 January, and as such we were asked to direct our workshops on the topics of 'emergency aid provision and its problems' and 'world hunger: Haiti'. However, when we discussed the topic amongst ourselves we felt that both of these areas fundamentally ignored the 'real' cause of the disaster in Haiti: historical exploitation, proximity to mainland America and the neoliberal globalization programme. The fact that Haiti, as the first independent black nation (and the first country to outlaw slavery), was indebted to its former colonial masters, France, to the tune of 90 million gold francs (the equivalent of $21 billion today), a debt which took over 120 years to pay back (1938), or that after the country's first ever free elections in 1991, the newly elected president Jean-Bertrande Aristide was overthrown in a US-instigated coup due to his 'radical' policies; introduction of a minimum wage, allowing the formation of trade unions, opposing US influence.
Aristide's overthrow was followed by four years of military rule, during which time Haiti's already weak economy was further liberalized, allowing increased access by US and South American corporations, the privatization of several major national industries including concrete manufacturing and the removal of protective tariffs on US agricultural imports. When Aristide was returned to power in 1994, it was on the condition that he accept the continuation of the programme already begun by the US, and that he adopt the policies of the candidate he defeated in the elections. The US and the neo-liberal lobby had won. Haiti's rich agricultural lands fell barren as heavily subsidized US exports flooded in, the agrarian poor flooded the city (Port-au-Prince has grown from a small town of 50,000 in the 1950s to a massive shanty town of over 2 million), and people went to work producing cheap consumer goods for export markets.
With huge numbers of desperately poor people living shacks in Port-au-Prince, is it any wonder so many were killed when the earthquake struck? With the US determined to see a mass relocation from the country to the city is it any wonder there were no housing regulations in place in a city that sits on a major international fault line? With so few prospects in a nation that is perpetually poor, is it any wonder 80 per cent of all skilled graduates leave Haiti to find work elsewhere? With a GDP of less than a dollar a day, is it surprising that the emergency services and infrastructure were woefully underprepared for the earthquake?
These are some of the issues that we tried to explore with the students we worked with. We found that whilst many were unaware of the situation Haiti faced, they were shocked to hear of the extent to which it was undeveloped. And that was our point. No-one was talking about Haiti before the quake, and that reflects the media portrayal and public understanding of these situations and the strange belief that we can separate natural from human-made disasters. There are hundreds of other Haitis out there, countries that are in desperate situations due to the imposition of oppressive economic policies and exploitation by Minority World governments, yet countries like Timor-Leste or Eritrea or Belize don't register on the international agenda.
We had some excellent discussions amongst our groups about these issues and we genuinely felt we had taken significant steps to developing people's understanding of how a country can become so specifically vulnerable to a natural disaster.
We are trying at the moment to broaden our workshop and event programmr as a co-operative and are willing to run sessions on a whole variety of topics. If you'd like more information about what we do please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.