PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – As the world rallies in response to the catastrophic earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, in Haiti, the global Christian family is invited to consider the place of God’s shalom, God’s peace, in the rebuilding of Haitian lives and infrastructure.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is doing just that, as we provide immediate emergency support, but also plan for medium- and long-term efforts.
MCC’s commitment to working toward the holistic well-being of communities and churches around the world stems from God’s vision of peace and dignity for humanity. The prophet Micah describes this as instruction that goes forth from Zion, “the word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” that “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4, NRSV)
This vision holds central basic human rights, such as access to food, health care, meaningful employment, security and education.
It also underscores the necessity of justice for the vision to be fulfilled, and the importance of human empowerment.
To understand the strategies needed for Haiti’s construction, it is appropriate to consider the obstacles this country has experienced. Natural disasters are beyond our human control, but the vulnerability of Haiti to their horrific consequences is human-made. There is nothing natural about poverty, hunger and political unrest.
Poverty. Beginning with the exorbitant debt of 150 million francs (the equivalent of $21 billion U.S. today) forced on the population after independence from France in 1804, to more recent structural adjustment policies and conditions on foreign aid, Haiti has been under the heel of external economic policies that exacerbate and systematize poverty.
Until June 2009, Haiti was paying $56 million to $70 million a year to service debts to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Close to 45 percent of that debt was incurred during the U.S.-backed Duvalier dictatorships (1957-1986). Until the forgiveness of $1.2 billion of Haiti’s foreign debt by the IMF and the World Bank last year, the government spent $4 per person on health care and $5 per person on education each year, while paying $5 per person in debt service.
Hunger. Until 1985, Haiti was self-sufficient in rice production – a staple in the modern Haitian diet. Under the tutelage of international financing institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF, Haiti liberalized its economic policies, opening the door to foreign exports, such as rice.
In 1994 conditions on foreign aid to the country and the reinstatement of ousted President Bertrand Aristide by the U.S. chiseled Haiti’s import tariffs on rice from 35 to 3 percent, the lowest in the region. Because of U.S.-subsidized rice entering the country at half the price of locally produced rice, and because these aid conditions prohibited the Haitian government from subsidizing local production, thousands of rice farmers were put out of business. Many were displaced to urban centers such as Port-au-Prince, where weak infrastructure and the lack of jobs forced millions of people to live in shanty towns and poorly constructed housing.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, now U.N. special envoy to Haiti, publicly apologized on March 10 for championing these policies. Quoted in The New York Times, Clinton said, “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.”
Dependence on foreign food imports magnifies misery in times of crisis.
Political unrest. Haiti has a history of foreign military intervention. This usurping of national authority has weakened state institutions and civil society.
While the foreign troop presence in Haiti is decreasing from the early days following the earthquake, there is still confusion about its mandate. MCC’s Haitian partners say they want military personnel to refrain from carrying assault rifles in public, and for Canadian and U.S. troops to clearly articulate their mission within the framework of the United Nations Mission in Haiti.
Principles that guide MCC’s response. God’s vision of shalom, for the people of Haiti to sit unafraid “under their own vines and under their own fig trees,” calls the Christian family to consider the long-term investment that must be made for Haiti to rise out of the crisis it faced even before the earthquake of Jan. 12. In response to this call, MCC has developed internal principles to guide its part in the work.
These include emphasis on local and sustainable development, Haitian-led decision making about development and investment priorities, demilitarization of aid efforts, and immigration policy that respects the Haitian Diaspora and dignifies the migration process.
It calls us to respond immediately, but also to consider how our governments and institutions make policy decisions that victimize the world’s marginalized people.
It calls us to witness to policymakers, faithfully sharing God’s vision for justice, peace and dignity for all people, and encouraging policy decisions that bring life, not death, to our brothers and sisters around the world.
As relief efforts continue, more opportunities will arise to work for human dignity in Haiti. We cannot control the movements of the earth, but we can control how our voice is heard in government.
The Haitian people call us to share our prophetic voice, as does Isaiah 62:1:
“For Zion’s sake, I will not be silent.” “Jan m' renmen mòn Siyon sa a! Se pou m' pale.”
Rebecca Bartel is MCC policy analyst for Latin America and the Caribbean. Alexis Erkert Depp is MCC policy analyst for Haiti.