Toward a Sustainable Future for Haiti

February 8th, 2010

The earthquake in Haiti has been many things – including both a wakeup call for Americans, and an opportunity to demonstrate our compassion – but it has above all been a human tragedy that has revealed the weaknesses and deficiencies that were there before. A 7.5 magnitude earthquake will no doubt cause some damage no matter where it occurs, but it does not always need to cause the extent of devastation that has occurred in Haiti, or to leave the population as unaided.

Some colleagues of ours at the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise met last week to discuss what we could do to contribute to a longer-term recovery, that would try to address the social, environmental, and economic challenges facing this troubled nation. We talked about a great many things, including the fact that many of us feel powerless in the face of such catastrophes, especially those that afflict human beings in distant places. We are all “overcommitted” to many worthwhile and challenging tasks already, and taking on such a monumental task as helping to chart the way forward in Haiti clearly seems to require that we steal time and energy from other causes. But if we can make even a small difference, while honoring our other commitments, this seems a compelling goal.

And the reality is that we do have a number of resources, ideas, and opportunities to contribute, and after discussing a great many aspects of what’s needed we agreed that as a minimum we would take a couple of small steps: 1) to write up what we had discussed (a forthcoming discussion paper to be published shortly), and 2) to reach out to others and invite them to join the conversation. Our hope is that others will step up to lead this conversation, and will simply be able to use what we have suggested as a basis for their own action.

Essentially, our discussion helped us to identify some of the obvious problems of Haiti’s long-standing plight, to sketch out the areas – infrastructure, public health, energy, housing, education, jobs, justice and security, government, ecosystem restoration, and so on – where a more sustainable approach is required, and to highlight some of the concerns that we have going in: that we empower Haitians to build a new society that is their own, not one handed to them (or, depending on your point of view, foisted upon them) from the outside.

We worried that we cannot think of a single instance where an impoverished society has entirely shaken off a culture of corruption and inequity; or – apart perhaps from the Marshall Plan – where a massive foreign intervention aimed at societal reconstruction has gone well. We noted that more than 8 billion dollars has been poured into Haiti since 1965, and yet the standard of living and the quality of life are no better than they were in 1945.[citation?] We also briefly acknowledged the possibility that there might be some hidden motives behind the interests of the US and other foreign governments because of rumors of significant oil and natural gas reserves that have yet to be fully documented or made available for exploitation. (See The Fateful Geological Prize Called Haiti, by by F. William Engdahl of Global Research, for some evidence of this.)

All of these are legitimate reasons for concern, but they are not reasons for inaction. In a remarkable piece by travel writer Rick Steves in yesterday’s USA Today, many of the realities of Haiti are plainly stated.

“as soon as the passion of this moment fades, the U.S. government, and others, will continue pursuing repressive trade policies that help keep places like Haiti poor.”

“We can blame Haiti’s chronic poverty on its heritage of slavery, on corruption, or on the fact that its main “export” is topsoil (in a treeless land, each rainstorm flushes precious soil into the sea). But we must also examine global trade policies that help keep nations like Haiti “banana republics,” poor lands whose economies are often dominated by the export of their leading natural resource.”

“Domestic subsidies for U.S. agricultural products also hamper development in poor nations…. In Haiti, fields that once grew rice sit unplanted. And across the street, a shack sells rice grown in the USA.”

Steves points out that in the face of any human suffering that affects others, each of us has to make a personal choice – to (a) ignore it, (b) respond charitably, or (c) “ask why, learn and act to address the roots of the problem.” We hope that most people who have the means to do so will respond with (b) – but also that enough of us will take up the challenge of (c) to make a difference in the long term.

Nor should we gloss over the fact that many of the “responses” to Steves’ article are ignorant and mean-spirited. Just as many Americans are incredibly generous, and have finally elected a President capable of responding to this humanitarian tragedy at the level it deserves, many others are cynical and uncaring.

So let’s not imagine that, as Americans, we have “the” solution for Haiti, or the means to implement it. But if we are able to inform ourselves as to our own country’s complicity, and to frame a dialog with Haitians themselves, with the international development community, and with sustainability leaders here at home, we should seek to do this.

We’re planning a conference call on the topic of “Haiti: The Way Forward” within a few weeks, to bring others into this conversation and see if we can identify and support those who will take action and seek to influence the outcomes for what has been the poorest county in the Americas, but may now have the opportunity to “leapfrog” our own unsustainable economic model and develop a sustainable society of its own. If you are interested in being part of this conversation, email me at [email protected] and I’ll send you a copy of the formal outline of our discussion and let you know when the conference call has been scheduled. Thanks.

Original published as Toward a Sustainable Future for Haiti at www.SustainableLeadershipForum.org.

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