An Interview With Ashley Smith on Haiti and the NGOs
Prisoners on Their Own Island
by Mike Whitney
Source: Counterpunch | Jan. 26, 2011
MW–In your article in CounterPunch titled “Haiti and the Aid Racket“, you said that “The catastrophe in Haiti has revealed the worst aspects of the U.S. government and the NGO aid industry”. Can you explain what you mean?
Ashley Smith—After the earthquake, the imperial powers and international NGOs collected billions of dollars with the promise that they would provide relief for Haiti’s quake victims and then rebuild the country. Today, even mainstream figures are profoundly critical of what the U.S. and the NGOs have done. For example, Ricardo Seitenfus, the special representative from the Organization of American States (OAS) to Haiti, told the Swiss daily Le Temps, “If there is failure of international aid, it is Haiti.”
For that moment of honesty, the OAS fired Seitenfus. But he was right. Today, there are still over 810,000 people, essentially quake refugees, trapped in 1,150 tent camps in and around Port-au-Prince. Only 15 percent of the promised transitional housing has been built. Astonishingly only 5 percent of the rubble has been removed. And there has been next to no reconstruction.
The U.S. is principally to blame for this failure. Initially the Obama Administration used the cover of humanitarianism to deploy 20,000 troops and 17 naval ships to bolster the UN occupation in policing desperate people and preventing an exodus of refugees. This military response, as Doctors without Borders complained at the time, actually interfered with the distribution of humanitarian aid. Once it did turn to relief and reconstruction, it set up the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) under its control, which garnered promises of $10 billion in donations from the imperial powers. The IHRC, however, has only collected 10 percent of the promised sums. When and if they do collect the donations, the U.S. aims to implement a neoliberal plan of to exploit Haiti’s cheap labor in sweatshops, export-oriented plantations, and tourist resorts. So what they claim to be an effort, in IHRC co-chair Bill Clinton’s words, an “effort to build back better” is actually a ruse for the exploitation of Haiti.
The international NGOs’ record is almost as abysmal. To be clear, some have done invaluable work, especially Partners in Health. But on the whole, the NGOs have failed the Haitian people. The NGOs have not spent the enormous sums of money they collected. The Red Cross, for instance, garnered $479 million in donations for Haiti, but has only spent or committed $245 million to projects. The NGOs do not coordinate their relief efforts. They are engaged in capitalist competition with one another for funds and are pre-occupied with branding their separate efforts so that they can advertise their “successes” to their donors. As a result, the NGOs provide at best provide a chaotic jumble of services to quake victims. At worst, they are sitting on piles of cash.
In truth, the U.S., its allies, and NGO surrogates have overseen and in many cases caused worsening conditions in Haiti worse over the last year. The failure of reconstruction left hundreds of thousands trapped in camps, vulnerable to storms, disease, and violence brought on by desperate conditions. On top of that, the UN occupation forces, specifically a contingent of Nepalese soldiers, most likely introduced cholera that has now become a countrywide epidemic, killing thousands and infecting hundreds of thousands more. The U.S. then precipitated a political crisis by pushing for parliamentary election to give a democratic veneer to American neocolonial rule. The election was a sham; it excluded the country’s most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas, and was marred by massive fraud and a contested outcome. Finally, like a nightmare, the former dictator, “Baby Doc” Duvalier, has returned to the country from exile, throwing the country into political chaos.
MW—Professor David Harvey says that NGOs act as “Trojan horses for neoliberal globalization.” Do you agree with Harvey and, if so, would you elaborate?
Ashley Smith—Let’s be clear first that NGOs form a big range of groups, from reformist organizations to large international humanitarians ones and others that are essentially appendages of various state powers, both major and minor. Some reformist NGOs have played a significant role in the World Social Forum and others are clearly on the side of neoliberal globalization. Harvey is absolutely correct about the role of the international NGOs. There is an insidious relationship between them, U.S. imperialism and neoliberal globalization.
After the economic crisis of the 1970s, the U.S. abandoned Keynesianism, whose emphasis on state-led development had failed, and adopted market fundamentalism, aka neoliberalism, at home and abroad to restore profits and growth in the system. In the U.S. the ruling class busted unions, cut the welfare state, and deregulated the economy. Internationally, as Walden Bello documents in Dark Victory, the U.S. used the debt crisis to compel third world countries to open up their markets, abolish regulations on foreign and domestic capital, privatize state industry, and shred state-run social programs.
Neoliberalism worked for the capitalist class, restoring profit and growth—however uneven—in the world system. But neoliberalism exacted an enormous social price everywhere. In the third world, it dislocated peasants, impoverished workers, and created enormous slums in many parts of the world. On top of that, the hollowing out of the states left many countries unable to provide services, regulate capital, or respond to natural and social crises.
The imperial powers, International Financial Institutions, and corporate foundations diverted their money from third world states to NGOs to fill the vacuum. In this way, the NGOs have actually accelerated the opening up of third world economies. In an apt phrase, David Harvey calls the process “privatization by NGO.”
MW—Do the big NGOs see natural disasters as a “growth industry” or is their interest strictly humanitarian?
Ashley Smith—In reality the answer is both. They are part and parcel of what Naomi Klein has called disaster capitalism. International NGOs are really businesses and big ones at that. There are about 50,000 international NGOs that compete for about $10 billion in funding from the International Financial Institutions, the imperial powers, and local governments. Just like corporations, they have chief executive officers, boards made up of mainly capitalists, a middle class professional staff, and then down at the bottom poorly paid laborers in their countries of operation.
These NGOs raise their funds by highlighting problems in the third world especially catastrophes like the earthquake in Haiti, branding their relief projects, and then advertising their efforts to imperial, corporate, and individual donors to raise more money. They are in the business of poverty and disaster management. A couple of people in the international NGOs actually told me that when the earthquake struck in Haiti some NGO bureaucrats, excited with the new prospects of fundraising, celebrated the disaster as if they had struck oil.
As capitalist entities they affirm and exacerbate the class division in the societies in which they operate. Anthropologist Mark Schuller describes their impact in Haiti. He writes: “In addition to higher salaries, NGO employees have access to many privileges: clean drinking water, electricity to charge cell phones, e-mail and the ever-prized U.S. visa. These privileges in turn plug individuals into the global economy. People’s first visits to the U.S. solidified neoliberal ideologies. This artificial, dependent middle class–the “NGO class”–thus directly support a form of economic globalization, accomplishes ideological work and further stratifies the Haitian population, selecting a chosen few for privileges denied Haiti’s poor majority.”
For all their professed humanitarianism, these NGOs in no way solve the ongoing crisis and at best mitigate the disaster in societies where they operate. Since they are inter-twined with neoliberal capitalism, they cannot and will not challenge the systemic roots of third world poverty that turn natural disasters into social catastrophes. They are in fact complicit with the problem. Thus, they do a booming business putting band-aids on the mortal wounds their neoliberal donors inflict. Haiti is the paradigmatic example. As Haiti spirals into greater poverty NGOs have exploded to over 10,000 across the country. The worse the conditions have gotten, the more NGOs have sprouted up, in a cycle of growing needs ever more inadequately met.
MW—Why has it been so hard to make progress in addressing the basic needs of the Haitian people? Is it a question of funding, logistics, access to heavy equipment, politics or something else?
Ashley Smith—-It is really not a technical or logistics problem at all. Nor is it a problem with the Haitian people, as racists often argue. As Alex Dupuy documents in his brilliant book, Haiti and the World Economy, the fault of the Haitian underdevelopment lies with the Haitian ruling class and imperialism. After the Haitian Revolution in 1804—the first successful slave revolution in history—the new Haitian ruling class tried to maintain plantation farming for export to the world market. But the freed slaves fled the plantations to become peasants farming for subsistence and small-scale export. Unable to sustain their capitalist plantations let alone industrialize the society, the ruling class split into two parts—urban merchants and rural land barons, both parasitic on the domestic peasant majority and dependent on international capitalism.
Imperialism, however, was and is the central cause of Haiti’s underdevelopment. The imperial powers—all slaveholders at the time—were terrified by the threat of the Haitian Revolution. They initially imposed an economic embargo on the fledgling society and then trapped Haiti in debt. In return for recognition of the country in 1825, France forced Haiti to pay 150 million francs, the equivalent today of $21 billion, in compensation for the loss of its slaves. Thus France structurally adjusted Haiti at its birth. As the rising imperial power in the region, the U.S. developed a predatory relationship to Haiti, invading and occupying several times at the end of the 19th century to ensure debt repayments. It occupied the country from 1915 to 1934, repressing the population and setting up the dreaded Haitian Armed Forces. Later it backed the Duvalier family dictatorship as an anticommunist ally against Castro in Cuba.
At the end of the 1970s, the U.S. convinced Baby Doc to implement a neoliberal plan to open up Haiti to American agribusiness, build sweatshops for the multinational textile industry, and set up swank tourist resorts for yuppies. Impoverished and fed up, the Haitian peasants, workers and urban poor rose up in the mass movement, Lavalas, that drove Baby Doc from power and then elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide President in 1990 on a program of social reform. The U.S. responded by backing the Haitian ruling class in two coups, one in 1991 and another in 2004. Their aim was to repress the mass movement and block the attempt to use the Haitian state to improve conditions for the country’s masses. Since 2004, it has maintained a UN occupation in the country to police resistance, while it has tried to impose the same old economic plan.
MW—Author Mike Davis says that NGOs are a form of “soft imperialism.” If he’s right, then the work of the thousands of NGOs in Haiti could be seen as a form of occupation? Your thoughts?
Ashley Smith—He’s absolutely right about the international NGOs. In the past, imperialism used religious institutions as a means to justify conquest, colonization and plunder as a civilizing mission—they were bringing the light of Christianity to the heathen masses. Today while the imperial powers plunder the third world, they funnel money into NGOs to make it seem like they are interested in aiding the very people they are robbing and exploiting. Haiti is perhaps the worst example of this process. While the U.S. imposed neoliberal plans that impoverished the people, it poured money into NGOs, cultivating the self-congratulatory illusion that it is helping Haiti.
Just like the religious institutions of the past, the NGOs are part and parcel of imperial domination of third world countries. In Haiti, for example, 70 percent of the NGO funding comes from the U.S. state. As a result, they become vehicles for control through provision of the societies in which they operate. As Peter 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.”
Perhaps one of the worst impacts of the NGOs is how they have become a vehicle for the cooptation of the indigenous resistance. As Mike Davis puts it in Planet of Slums, “Third World NGOs have proven brilliant at co-opting local leadership as well as hegemonizing the social space traditionally occupied by the Left. Even if there are some celebrated exceptions—such as the militant NGOs so instrumental in creating the World Social Forums—the broad impact of the NGO/’civil society revolution”…has been to bureaucratize and de-radicalize urban social movements.”
MW—To what extent are NGOs being used to usurp the power of the state? Do they pose a direct threat to Haiti’s sovereignty?
Ashley Smith—This is the most insidious face of the imperial use of NGOs in Haiti. As I noted earlier, even before the earthquake, imperial and corporate donors were bypassing the Haitian state to give money directly to international NGOs. They thus exacerbated the gutting of the Haitian state so much so that Haitians now refer to their own country as ruled not by their own government but by a “Republic of NGOs.”
That phrase captures how Haiti has lost its sovereignty. But the reality is even worse than the phrase implies. The NGOs are not part of any republic; they are not democratically accountable to the Haitian people or even its government, but to international donors. And they are not truly non-governmental. They are in fact so dependent on imperial powers for their donations that they are better thought of as subsidiaries of those governments.
In reality, the NGOs are part of how U.S. imperialism rules Haiti today as a neocolony. It uses the UN occupation force as its repressive arm. And it uses NGOs to oversee social services. The combination of the UN and the NGOs undercut any notion that the Haitian state let alone its people control their own country.
MW—What is the relationship between the Pentagon and the NGOs?
Ashley Smith—-Historically, NGOs had an established doctrine of neutrality in conflicts and refused to endorse imperial intervention. However, as Conor Foley documents in The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War, many of the big NGOs like Doctors Without Borders have abandoned that stance and call for imperial intervention. They are thus handmaidens of imperial domination.
In Haiti, the U.S. deliberately used willing NGOs as allies in their destabilization and eventual overthrow of the Aristide government. The U.S. imposed an aid embargo to prevent Aristide from implementing any social reforms. They then channeled money through USAID into NGOs. Many of these NGOs would line up with the ruling class opposition, the Group of 184, some even backed the U.S.-backed death squads, and others supported the U.S. coup.
Today, Haiti is a neocolony of the United States. The U.S. has effective state power through the UN occupation. It controls its economy through IHRC. It dominates almost every aspect of civil society through its NGO raj. For all these reasons former OAS representative Ricardo Seitenfus said the UN was “transforming the Haitians into prisoners on their own island.”
Ashley Smith writes for the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Whitney lives in Washington state and can be reached at email@example.com