Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for March 14th, 2010

Two massive earthquakes have left a trail of devastation in South America. Haiti suffered an estimated 230,000 dead and 1.2 million homeless, but Chile was relatively unscathed in terms of human casualties (several hundred) despite experiencing a far more severe quake. What accounts for the huge difference? High population density and widespread poverty. The two are connected.

Haiti’s poverty is largely the result of decades of vicious, postcolonial dictatorial rule that replaced colonial exploitation.  The country has never had the infrastructure that only political institutions can create. After the internationally sponsored coup in 2004, a strong UN pacification force was placed in the country. Despite being the nation’s de facto law-enforcement agency, it was not given a mandate to help in poverty alleviation programmes or agrarian development.

As for Haitian Christianity, in both its Roman Catholic and Protestant expressions, it is heavily syncretistic, often barely distinguishable from traditional voodoo religion. While engaging in social welfare, the Church disengaged from critical witness in the political domain, either through fear of repression and reprisals or through a pietistic theology of withdrawal from public life. (Both in its syncretism and quietism, it is little different from Churches in many parts of the so-called ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds).

But rich nations also share responsibility for Haiti’s plight. In March 2008 Stefan Gates from the BBC went to Haiti, known to the world as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere (with 72.1% living on less than $2 a day and two-thirds of its workforce of 3.6 million unemployed), met with locals in the Artibonite Valley. He reported how this valley used to produce nearly enough rice to feed the entire country, but back in the 1980s the IMF and the WB demanded that Haiti drop import tariffs in return for loans. Haiti was soon flooded with cheap and heavily subsidised food from the United States. A local farmer complained, “We can’t compete with imported rice”. Agriculture – one of the few sources of employment in this desperately poor country – effectively collapsed. Rice production halved and imports increased fifty-fold, making Haiti the USA’s fourth-largest market for rice.

After the recent disaster Peter Hallward commented in the British newspaper, The Guardian: “Since the late 1970s, relentless neoliberal assault on Haiti’s agrarian economy has forced tens of thousands of small farmers into overcrowded urban slums…hundreds of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents now live in desperately substandard informal housing.” Hallward quotes Brian Concannon, the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti: “Those people got there because they or their parents were intentionally pushed out of the countryside by aid and trade policies specifically designed to create a large captive and therefore exploitable labour force in the cities; by definition they are people who would not be able to afford to build earthquake resistant houses.”

It is humbling to be reminded again (see my posts of 8 May and 15 May 2009, “The Lives of Others”) how many of us are implicated in the tragedies that befall strangers- either through our apathy or our complicity in global institutions that continue to practise double standards that are biased towards the rich. While churches and international aid agencies now trying to help Haitians rebuild their shattered lives and collapsed homes, who is calling on the IMF and World Bank to apologise publicly and offer restitution? And why is it that, while we raise prayer and money for victims of natural disasters, we do little to educate ourselves and our churches about the histories behind such suffering?

I am reminded of the oft-quoted words of Dom Helder Camara, the late Archbishop of Recife, Brazil: “When I help the poor, people call me a Saint. When I ask, ‘Why are these people poor?’, they call me a Communist.”


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