Disaster Capitalism in Haiti – Two Years after the Quake

“We also know that our longer-term effort will not be measured in days and weeks, it will be measure in months and even years” – President Obama, speech announcing the establishment of the ClintonBush Haiti Fund, January 16th 2010

Okay, so it’s almost two years now. Let’s take a look at the long-term effort.

If anyone was in any doubt that the Haitian earthquake was going to be a goldmine for the disaster capitalists,  a recent article at Counterpunch – which accounts for where the money raised for disaster relief and reconstruction ‘did and did not go’ – makes for a sobering, and frankly depressing read.

‘Two years later, over half a million people remain homeless in hundreds of informal camps, most of the tons of debris from destroyed buildings still lays where it fell, and cholera, a preventable disease, was introduced into the country and is now an epidemic killing thousands and sickening hundreds of thousands more.  Haiti today looks like the earthquake happened two months ago, not two years.’

Here are some of the starker facts figures about where the money went and who was consulted about it:

  • 33% of every dollar of US aid went to the US military
  • only 1% of the $3.6 billion raised by donors went to the Haitian Government
  • less than 1% of the $412 million in US funds allocated for infrastructure reconstruction in Haiti has been spent by USAID and the US State Department
  • international aid coordination meetings were not translated into Kreyol
  • the Haiti Neighborhood Return and Housing Reconstruction Framework drafted by the Interim Haiti Redevelopment Commission (IHRC) which was supposed to guide reconstruction, was not published in draft form in Kreyol so local people could review it
  • of the 1490 contracts awarded by the US government only 23 contracts went to Haitian companies
  • two US based private companies with strong US government connections – CHF International and Project Concern International – received an $8.6 million joint contract for debris removal in Port-au-Prince
  • at a meeting of governments in Montreal in January 2011 the international community decided it was not going to allow the Haiti government to direct the relief and recovery funds
  • an official report into the operations of the IHRC revealed that it failed to direct funding to projects prioritized by Haitians

Haiti Liberte was one of the first news sources to report the disaster relief ‘goldrush’ after secret cables by U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten were released by wikileaks in February last year.

Here is an example of the promotional material for one of the companies that won out in the scramble for contracts after the earthquake, United for a Sustainable America:

The horror. Renzo Martens eat your heart out.

The Haiti Liberte article also reported the story of Lewis Lucke, a 27-year veteran of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) who was named US special coordinator for relief and reconstruction after the earthquake. After a few months on the job he moved to the private sector, where he could sell his contacts and connections to the highest bidder. He quickly got a $30,000-a-month (plus bonuses) contract with the Haiti Recovery Group (HRG).

‘But in December 2010, Lucke sued AshBritt and its Haitian partner, GB Group (belonging to Haiti’s richest man, Gilbert Bigio) for almost $500,000. He claimed the companies “did not pay him enough for consulting services that included hooking the contractor up with powerful people and helping to navigate government bureaucracy,” according to the Associated Press. Lucke had signed a lucrative $30,000 per month agreement with AshBritt and GB Group within eight weeks of stepping down, helping them secure $20 million in construction contracts.’

According to an article written one year after the earthquake by Jordan Flaherty  Gilbert Bigio made a fortune during the corrupt Duvalier regime and was a supporter of the right-wing coup against Haitian President Aristide. According to an article on Haiti Action Net, in 2007, after having doubled his fortunes since the ousting of Aristide, Bigio began building factories secured by armed guards and UN patrols in one of the poorest areas of Port-au-Prince, Cité Soleil.

A photograph from the GB website is uncannily similar to those bought by the plantation owner in Renzo Martens’ challenging exposé of the ethical paradoxes of global aid, photojournalism and contemporary art in the moral labyrinth of humanitarian aid work in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Enjoy Poverty III.


‘What can we do?’…use the ‘R’ word

The Counterpunch article ends its dismal inventory of aid relief and reconstruction failures for post-earthquake Haiti with a less than inspiring proposal of what can be done.

‘The UN Special Envoy to Haiti suggests the generous instincts of people around the world must be channelled by international actors and institutions in a way that assists in the creation of a “robust public sector and a healthy private sector.” Instead of giving the money to intermediaries, funds should be directed as much as possible to Haitian public and private institutions. A “Haiti First” policy could strengthen public systems, promote accountability, and create jobs and build skills among the Haitian people.’

Most of these proposals were made by many – including the author of the current article – immediately after the earthquake. Why would they be headed any more now than then? It’s also very worrying to see the ‘R’ word used in this context. It does not bode well.

The sudden ubiquitous use of the ‘R’ word in the language of British politics and social policy reached a peak during the summer riots here last year with politicians, newsreaders and political commentators all proclaiming the need for robust policing, robust sentencing and robust responses. It was a kind of memetic mania. How this word managed to find its way into so many mouths is a mystery. I random google search of ‘Robust UK Politics’ brings up calls from David Milliband for Labour to be ‘robust on Europe’, calls for a ‘robust voluntary sector work program‘, a ‘robust debate over jobs’ , a ‘robust climate change policy’, a ‘robust demand for gold bullion’,  ‘robust Christmas sales’ and, my favorite, a ‘robust UK research climate’ .

Interestingly most of these uses occurred in 2011. A few, notably with reference to Gordon Brown’s ‘robust bullying’  and ‘robust survey of deaths in Iraq’ occurred a year or so earlier.

Isn’t ‘robust’ a meaningless, jargonistic,  contemporary political euphemism for pretending to be doing something significant when actually you haven’t got a clue what to do? Or is there something more sinister at work here?

I can’t help being reminded of President Obama’s first statement following the Haitian earthquake: “I have directed my administration to act with a swift, coordinated and aggressive effort, to save lives”. Aggressive effort to save lives?

I will be discussing alternative approaches to what can be done about the situation at two events taking place at Occupy LSX next weekend. The first is an event taking place at the Bank of Ideas on Saturday January 14th about The Corporate Occupation of the Arts where I will be discussing protest pedagogy and the second an event organised by the London Occupy Economics Working Group called ‘Beyond Capitalism?’ on Sunday January 15th.

3 Replies to “Disaster Capitalism in Haiti – Two Years after the Quake”

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