Interview by Augusta Dwyer, published on August Dwyer's blog, Global Kiosk, February 13, 2012
I shouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Chalmers has become a bit weary of journalists coming by to ask him what he thinks of international aid efforts to help alleviate poverty in Haiti. His initial response was to laugh and say, “Of course not.” After all, he’s been saying largely the same thing for many years already. I recently found an article from New Internationalist from 1996 in which he criticized World Bank and other strategies that saw Haiti’s agricultural sector weakened by cheap food imports, the establishment of $3 day factory jobs as a panacea and the proposal to cut the already anaemic Haitian civil service by half. Nonetheless, he did go on to answer the following questions.
You’ve said that in spite of the growth in donor funding, your nation has become poorer, and economically and politically more dependent, and that both the state and national institution have become weaker. Why has international aid not worked well in Haiti?
First of all, international aid is built upon a completely erroneous vision of the country. So you have a kind of category of analysis that is completely off track, that does not correspond at all to reality. And this is not new. It is something we have lived for a very long time, at least since U.S. occupation of 1915. There is really a considerable gap between the reality we are living and the perception, the vision that comes from abroad.
Secondly, since the 80s, there has been a process of submission to an ultra-liberal vision, or neo-liberal dogmas, which contributed rapidly to the de-structuring or weakening of the national economy. For example, the question of the opening of markets; it is a dogma that suggests that the more you open markets to the exterior, the better it will be. But this has led to a situation where Haiti, which was self-sufficient in food in 1972, has become a country highly dependent on food imports, with imports worth around $US600 million annually.
Also, the model of development associated with the aid is outward looking; based on a vision of an economy of enclaves, or poles of isolated production, that have very little relation to the rest of the economy, and that prioritize the exterior market. … And so financing comes with the vision of stimulating exports. Anything that is geared towards improving or building up the domestic market doesn’t interest donors.
What has been the effect of this neo-liberal strategy?
The period of neo-liberal hegemony is particularly harmful because they have imposed a series of measures, such as financial liberalization, of exterior markets, the privatization of public enterprises, the reduction of the state, etc. that has put us in this situation where we no longer have at our disposal the tools that permit us to get out of the crisis, that would permit us to have a different situation in Haiti.
I would say there is a long misunderstanding between Haiti and the donors, and that misunderstanding became dramatically more severe after the earthquake of January 12th. It has radically eliminated all the Haitian actors from decision-making spaces. These strategic spaces are all controlled by the exterior.
Do you see a difference between NGOs and the official aid from bi-lateral and multi-lateral institutions?
Obviously the international aid market is composed of several actors. You have the U.S. government. You have the international financial institutions like the World Bank, the International Development Bank and do on. And you have the NGOs. Now, the NGOs are a very diverse world, so it’s hard to reach a global conclusion about them. One can say the most powerful NGOs, those that can marshal the most money, in general align themselves with the international lending institutions, with the dominant vision, which is the neo-liberal vision. You can find small and medium NGOs and that have a different reading, but overall that is not where the weight is.
You referred earlier to the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Fund, and to Paul Collier’s advice on how it should spend its money, as “a caricature of this dilemma.” Why is that?
It proposes that one entrust the coordination of everything having to do with health and education to bodies outside of the state. All such funds will have a representative from the international community, and you’ll have the NGOs, and a representative of the state. So that is terrible, because it’s the means of assuring that there will never be a state in Haiti. Because in fact, the state is constituted in relation to the population, and this rapport will only exist to the extent to which it is a legitimate state, one that provides you with services, that is useful to you.
How can this legitimate state come to be?
You need two things. One must reinforce the state, reinforce its capacities and its structures, and at the same time one must change the state. One must do the two jobs at the same time. Reinforce it and democratize it, have a state that is open, respectful of rules and laws, etc. It is within that dynamic that one can move away from these contradictions. But by effacing the state and replacing it with something else, at that point, you have a situation that is worse, and you don’t have the possibilities to really construct coherent strategies.
And no, that is not difficult because, in Haiti, one has a very dynamic society, a lot of base organizations that work, that reflect upon, and make propositions. Unfortunately, since 1991, we had a break, but there is still a trend toward forming associations that can serve as a basis, in fact, for that dialogue with a state that is indispensable for cooperation and democratization.
What might be some solutions to Haiti’s poverty, especially when it comes to issues of land tenure and agriculture?
I think that we must have a double strategy, a strategy of reinforcing, accompanying and training small holding peasants, because, in spite of everything, they have shown a very great capacity for resistance. This country exists, thanks to the small holding peasantry. But these peasant farmers work alone, are isolated and have no technical resources – I think one can improve on that and, at the same time, chose the ecosystems that are favourable to certain types of products, and also rationalize large areas of land, of land belonging to the state.
(Haiti’s mountainous landscape) is a constraint, but at the same time an advantage. Because we have a lot of eco-systems, micro-climates, of which one can take advantage. One must maximize this. We have a very large selection and biodiversity of fruits, of all kinds. We must invest in that, encouraging the peasant to conserve the biodiversity. At the same time, these reserves of productivity should above all connect agriculture to other economic sectors.
(For another interesting analysis of Paul Collier’s views, see this blog post from Oxfam GV’s Duncan Green, http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=1822.)