I put together this piece — more like a fragment perhaps — a few months ago, but I thought it might have some relevance, at some points at least, to current events in Haiti.
As for what you can do, I would suggest continuing to support Partners in Health, which had more than 5,000 people working at the grassroots level in Haiti before the quake. No fair weather friend — or foul weather tourist — there. As Ashley Smith notes in a devastating report on the militarist-corporatist–NGO symbiosis that has devastated Haiti for years and is serving it extremely ill in the aftermath of the earthquake:
While some NGOs like Partners in Health have done and are doing amazing work to provide services for quake victims, overall, the catastrophe in Haiti revealed the worst aspects of the U.S. government and the NGO aid industry.
As many analysts have noted, the U.S. in fact used its "relief" operation to disguise a military occupation of Haiti, intended to prevent a flood of refugees reaching the U.S., impose even greater sweatshop development on Haiti, and signal to the rest of Latin America, the Caribbean and the world’s most powerful governments that U.S. aims to reassert its power in the region.
As a result, relief aid from the U.S. has played second fiddle to its imperial ambitions–and the NGO-centered aspect of its response is an important part of its strategy.
Smith goes on to relate, in grim detail, a long, sad history of how many NGOs (but by no means all) have long played handmaiden to the domination agenda of the Potomac Imperium — a record that has been particularly destructive in Haiti. For example:
[Mike] Davis argues that NGOs are, in fact, a form of "soft imperialism." 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 civilizing mission of helping 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 more clear than in Haiti. The U.S. convinced the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier in the 1980s to implement a neoliberal development plan which Haitians call "the plan of death," which dropped tariffs on American agriculture, encouraged sweatshop development in Port-au-Prince and opened tourist resorts for the international elite.
Predictably, the plan produced a social catastrophe; it increased absolute poverty by 60 percent. But the Haitian poor, workers and peasants rose up to build a mass movement, Lavalas, that eventually elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide president in 1990 on a platform of anti-neoliberal reform.
The U.S. saw Aristide’s mild reformism as a threat, backed a coup in 1991 and used the coup regime’s reign of terror to crush the Lavalas social movement. It also convinced Aristide to implement the "plan of death" as the condition of his restoration in 1994. Under threat from the U.S., Aristide and his successor, René Préval implemented much of the plan.
The U.S. used yet another coup against Aristide in 2004 and another coup regime to force through the rest of the plan. Now, Haiti has the most neoliberal economy in Latin American and the Caribbean.
And let us not forget that Barack Obama — the progressive, Peace Prize-winning humanitarian in the White House — appointed the man whose administration orchestrated that 2004 coup (and whose father orchestrated the 1991 coup) as the public face of America’s "humanitarian mission" to Haiti … along with the man who, in 1994, re-imposed the "Plan of Death" on the Haitian people. Yes, it’s hard to beat your progressive humanitarians when it comes to brutal, blatant cynicism.
Smith goes on to note:
While some NGOs like Partners in Health have been set up to develop Haitian grassroots self-organization and control, most major NGOs have been accomplices in the neoliberal catastrophe the U.S. wrought in Haiti. …
Anthropologist Timothy Schwartz documents the disastrous impact of the NGOs in his book Travesty in Haiti. In particular, he shows how CARE International — which claimed its mission in Haiti was to provide food aid to the "poorest of the poor" — not only failed in its mission, but also actually exacerbated the food crisis.
When the U.S. implemented its "plan of death" in Haiti, which undercut peasant agriculture and flooded the market with subsidized U.S. products, it caused a food crisis. Peasants were no longer able to find a market for their produce, and were therefore thrust into poverty, often unable to meet their own food needs because of their collapsed standard of living. They then became dependent on food aid.
USAID, in turn, funded CARE International to feed the impoverished peasants. The NGO began to distribute U.S. 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. CARE seemed to care so little that it never really followed up on the consequences of its food aid program.
Meanwhile, it put on conferences in fancy hotels inside and outside Haiti for its U.S. government and corporate backers. Schwartz writes that this amounted to "a perversion of American charitable ideals, with its false claims to be aiding ‘the poorest of the poor’ when what it was really doing was throwing exquisite banquets at plush hotels, while carrying out U.S. political policy in the interests of international venture capitalist and industrialists."These NGOs are non-governmental only in name. Peter Hallward documents inDamming the Flood that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other similar government bureaucracies from other countries provide 70 percent of the funding for NGOs. The other 30 percent comes from corporate formations and individual contributors.
Unsurprisingly, as Hallward argues, "the bulk of USAID money that goes to Haiti and to other countries in the region is explicitly designed to pursue interests–the promotion of a secure investment climate, the nurturing of links with local business elites, the preservation of a docile and low-wage labor force, and so on."
… The Marine Gen. Smedley Butler from the early decades of the 20th century said he served as a "racketeer for capitalism." The same could just as easily be applied to the NGOs and humanitarian aid today–it is a racket for empire.
But again, there are many people and organizations fighting the good fight in Haiti, with Haitians, and they are in desperate need of support as the vast tragedy there deepens, away from the obscene trivialities ("Tiger Repents!") that dominate the American media.