Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Irony of Bill Clinton in Haiti

Ban Ki-Moon appointed Bill Clinton UN Special Envoy to Haiti: a rather bizarre choice seeing as it was Clinton’s presidential support for neo-liberal policies that made Haiti so vulnerable to begin with. Natural disasters may be inevitable but their consequences are compounded by human intervention. In Haiti, US-led economic liberalization has led to rapid urbanization and a collapse of the agricultural economy – both significant factors in the ever-rising death toll from the earthquake on January 12th.

In the early 1980s, it was unthinkable for Haiti to import a large percentage of its food. The country is highly fertile, with opportunities for both international trade and domestic sufficiency. However, this poor Caribbean country now imports seventy-five percent of its rice from the US – making it the third largest importer of US rice in the world!

Haiti’s sudden dependency on American food comes from two, closely interlinked phenomena: US-led economic structural adjustment of Haiti and the US rice subsidy program.
The structural adjustment began in the 1980s but reaching its peak in 1994 when the ousted President Aristide returned from exile, with the help of the Clinton administration. The US military and USAID supported Aristide on condition that he followed an “economic liberalization” package: downsize and/or privatize state functions, and decrease regulation.

As a consequence of this package foreign rice tariffs were slashed from 50% to 3%, making subsidized American imports far cheaper than Haitian rice. With the markets of Haiti dependent on foreign rice, this already fragile state became a pawn to “market” forces. A global spike in food prices highlighted this point in 2008, when even the cheap US imported rice was too expensive for many Haitians.

The influx of US rice to Haiti was assured by the huge subsidies program and the controversial aid distribution arm of the government. An astounding forty-one percent of US rice production is subsidized – totaling 11 billion dollars between 1995 and 2006. Haiti’s agricultural economy stands no chance in such an unbalanced economic world.

As food prices escalated out of reach for Haitians, USAID stepped up to “help” the “impoverished Haitians.” Ironically enough, US law dictates that foreign aid must be produced, packed and distributed by the US; resulting in fifty-percent of the aid investment going directly to US suppliers!

Agricultural income in Haiti tumbled under the structural adjustment programs (SAPs). Rural people, in search of work, migrated to the urban centers. The cities were ill-prepared for this influx, in part owing to the SAP insistence on cutting back public spending. Urban populations grew from 700,000 in 1980 to 3,000,000 before the earthquake.

Unmanageably high concentrations of people, a marginalized rural economy and dependency on outside food sources have multiplied the fallout of the Haitian earthquake many times over. A simple comparison could be made to the San Francisco earthquake in the 1980s: same reading on the Richter scale, same time of day, similar population numbers– casualties stood at sixty-three, not the estimated 230,000 in Haiti.

Fearing the US has “not done enough” already, Clinton recently stated: “This disaster is an opportunity to implement oft-delayed reforms.” These reforms, in part, refer to the Clinton-Collier Plan for economic development in Haiti.

The plan, entitled “Haiti: from natural catastrophe to economic security” was published before the earthquake. Clinton and Collier propose that the Haitian economy develop in three ways: growth in tourist industry, sweatshops in urban centers and export-oriented mango farms. It is hard to see how helping corporate multinationals and Haiti’s elite will benefit the burgeoning urban poor in this country.

Concerted international action must be taken to get Haiti’s economy on the right track after years of intervention and “reform imposed from the outside. For starters, the UN should stop putting the problem at the heart of Haiti’s reconstruction.


  1. I love this piece so much that I plan to read it on youtube, and give you Alan bulter for credit for it. great piece, Bill is some thing else.