Haiti: Aid racket increases suffering

February 27, 2010

It is more than a month since the January 12 earthquake that laid waste to Port-au-Prince, killing more than 200,000 people and thrusting millions of people into desperate conditions.

But according to the US government, Haitians have a lot to be thankful for. On February 12, the US Ambassador to Haiti Ken Merten boasted to the press: "In terms of humanitarian aid delivery ... frankly, it's working really well, and I believe that this will be something that people will be able to look back on in the future as a model."

What are the facts? The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in a February 12 statement: "Over 1.1 million people are homeless, many of them still living under sheets and cardboard in makeshift camps. The government of Haiti estimates that at least 300,000 people were injured during the quake."

So far, the relief effort has only managed to provide 270,000 people with basic shelters like tents. More than 1 million people still have little access to food and water and have to scrape by to find sustenance.

Even worse, because the relief operation is so inefficient, Haitians report that some of the food spends so long at the airport it is rotten by the time it gets to the hungry.

On February 7, thousands of Haitians marched in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville to protest their desperate circumstances and the failure of aid delivery.

Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF) summed up the grave situation in a February 11 statement: "It's hard to believe that four weeks after the quakes, so many people still live under bedsheets in camps and on the street ...

"One can only wonder how there could be such a huge gap between the promise of a massive financial influx into the country and the slow pace of distribution."

Some NGOs, such as Partners in Health, have done and are doing amazing work to provide services for quake victims. But the catastrophe in Haiti has revealed the worst aspects of the US government and the NGO aid industry.

The US has used its "relief" operation to disguise a military occupation of Haiti, intended to prevent a flood of refugees reaching the US, impose even greater sweatshop development and signal to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean that it aims to reassert its power in the region.

The NGO-centred aspect of the US response is an important part of its strategy. Instead of aiding the Haitian state and building up its capacity to handle the crisis, the US is funneling US$379 million in aid through its own agencies and then through NGOs.

Associated Press said on January 27: "Each American dollar roughly breaks down like this: 42 cents for disaster assistance, 33 cents for U.S. military aid, nine cents for food, nine cents to transport the food, five cents for paying Haitian survivors for recovery efforts, just less than one cent to the Haitian government ..."

The big NGOs, which are getting the bulk of the money, see the crisis as an opportunity to raise funds and their profile. Thus, instead of a centralised relief effort, something only a sovereign state could provide, the NGOs are competing with one another, literally branding areas they serve with their logos.

On January 22, the British Telegraph quoted British medical journal The Lancet as saying that NGOs are "jostling for position, each claiming that they are doing the most for earthquake survivors ... the situation in Haiti is chaotic, devastating and anything but coordinated.

"Polluted by the internal power politics and the unsavory characteristics seen in many big corporations, large aid agencies can be obsessed with raising money through their own appeal efforts.

"Media coverage as an end in itself is too often an aim of their activities. Marketing and branding have too high a profile.

"Perhaps worst of all, relief efforts in the field are sometimes competitive, with little collaboration between agencies, including smaller, grassroots charities that may have better networks in affected counties, and so are well placed to immediately implement emergency relief."

The NGOs are businesses in their own right. They sport well-paid bureaucrats that raise money from the disastrous impact of neoliberalism around the world.

They are not accountable to the local populations they supposedly serve, but instead to the international donors that fund them — most often, corporate-backed formations like George Soros's Open Society Institute and capitalist governments.

Moreover, given that NGOs can pay local leaders more than either the government or social movements, they often recruit people who would traditionally lead leftist movements.

They play a role very similar to the one that missionary religious institutions played in the earlier history of empire. They provide moral cover — a civilising mission to help the hapless heathens — for the powers that are plundering the society.

And just as religious institutions justified imperial war, many NGOs, abandoning their traditional standpoint of neutrality in conflicts, have become advocates of military intervention.

Nowhere is this pattern clearer than in Haiti.

In the 1980s, the US convinced the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier to implement a neoliberal development plan that Haitians call "the plan of death". This dropped tariffs on US agriculture, encouraged sweatshop development and opened tourist resorts for the international elite.

The plan increased absolute poverty by 60%.

But the Haitian poor rose up and overthrew the dictatorship in 1986. They elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide president in 1990 on a platform of anti-neoliberal reform.

Aristide was overthrown in a US-backed coup in 1991, with the coup regime carrying out a reign of terror against his supporters. Aristide was again elected in 2000, and overthrown by another US-backed coup in 2004.

Haiti now has the most neoliberal economy in the region.

The US, other powers and international donors responded to the subsequent collapse of the state by funding NGOs. Soon, the World Bank reported that there were 10,000 NGOs in the country, doing everything from trash collection to health care and food provision in a chaotic patchwork of services that have replaced the incapacitated state.

These NGOs are non-governmental only in name. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other similar government-funded agencies from other countries provide 70% of NGO funding.

The NGOs have proliferated in lockstep with the collapse in the Haitian standard of living.

When the "plan of death" was implemented in Haiti, undercutting peasant agriculture, it flooded the market with subsidised US products and caused a food crisis. Peasants became dependent on food aid.

USAID funded CARE International to feed the impoverished peasants. The NGO began to distribute US crops as food aid, during both bad and good harvests, further undermining Haitian peasants' ability to compete for the market.

Often, the food aid was taken by local elites and sold on the market, with the CARE brand still affixed to the packaging.

The US also manipulated NGOs to build political opposition to any reform movement. In the run-up to its second coup against Aristide in 2004, the US enforced an embargo on Aristide's government for alleged electoral manipulations and escalated funding for anti-Aristide NGOs.

Many, if not most, of the NGOs that supported the coup were on the US payroll.

By acting in these ways, the NGOs have undercut Haitian sovereignty, all under the banner of helping people overcome their poverty — which the NGOs themselves helped to create.

In 1935, retired US Major General Smedley Butler famously concluded that his role at the head of the US military had been to serve as a "racketeer for capitalism". The same could just as easily be said of many NGOs involved in humanitarian aid today — it is a racket for empire.

[Abridged from .]

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