Tag Archives: Third World poverty

And now, a word about Honduras

7 Mar

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People always refer to Haiti, the country I write about in The Anatomy of Giving, as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. But not too far away from it on the poverty stats list is Honduras.

Canada gives it about $30 million in foreign aid; its biggest donor, the U.S., more than $80 million. That sounds like a lot.

Yet like Haiti, it remains a nation where no amount of foreign aid can make up for the lack of democracy and government accountability that keeps people poor, disenfranchised – and dependent on that foreign aid. Try to stand up and demand the kind of basic rights that will allow the poor to earn more and have more, and you can get yourself killed.

The latest is a woman named Berta Cáceres. A coordinator of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, she campaigned for indigenous and environmental rights, in particular helping to organize protests against a hydro-electric dam project that has displaced thousands and will prevent impoverished peasant farmers from irrigating their land. Her murder is particularly tragic because she had denounced the death threats, on the one hand, and because she had the support of many social justice and environmental organizations. In many ways, Berta Cáceres was not alone.

But none of that stopped the people who wanted her dead.

Worse, the official response to her campaigning is not an anomaly. More than 100 people have been murdered in Honduras between 2010 and 2014 for defending the rights of the poor. That number, according to a study by the NGO Global Witness, represents of the world’s highest death tolls relative to population.

Honduras has been plagued with social unrest and by extraordinarily blatant attacks on the poor by their governors for a while now. And by “a while” I mean since the 2009 military coup against former president Manuel Zelaya, who had been taking a few modest steps towards improving things in the country. That coup was wholly supported by the U.S. government, including President Barack Obama (something I still can’t quite understand) and his then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (which I can.)

The current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, has been described thus by Dana Frank in Foreign Affairs magazine: “In the past six years he has proven himself to be a terrifying thug. Now, a little more than a year into his presidency, it’s clear he is perpetuating an ongoing human rights crisis while countenancing a cesspool of corruption and organized crime in which the topmost levels of government are enmeshed.”

So, despite the foreign aid flow, poverty has increased; impunity and violence has grown – and no one is connecting the dots.

I highly recommend Dana Frank’s article for a full accounting of the terrible things happening in Honduras. It sets the context in which the murder of Berta Cáceres is one more detail in an ongoing saga of land grabs, economic chaos and a kind of war against the Honduran people.

Yes, it’s time to mourn the tragic end of one woman’s story of courage and selflessness. It’s also time for people to get angry about the appalling price of such hypocrisy. It\s a price both the people of Honduras and we, the taxpayers of the richest countries in the Americas through our official aid agencies, are paying.

In Honduras at least, there has been a pushback, with anti-government protests throughout the country. We can support them by demanding our politicians and representatives stop coddling Cáceres’s killers.

When Less is More

8 Dec
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Photo Courtesy thethreesisters via Creative Commons

It may all be very nice of Facebook’s young Sun King to donate a big swack of cash – some $45 billion at current market value in company shares – to charity. It might encourage others to think about donating something, or to at least think about the very issue of inequality. It might even annoy Bill Gates that his $41-billion philanthropy earmark is no longer the largest such donation ever.

Yet somehow Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s announcement brings out not only the skeptic in me but also the critic. And that’s because previous flashy donations of big money designated to in some way confront poverty often seem to miss the whole point.

I realize that other observers of billionaire philanthropy have come out with criticisms already. One of them, Linsey McGoey was recently interviewed here on CBC Radio. She wrote a book about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, called No Such Thing as a Free Gift, which exposes the way its vast trove of funding actually ends up enhancing the same systems that made these philanthrocapitalists billionaires in the first place.

In a recent Guardian column, she pointed out how the three items wealthy people like Gates tend to fund – microfinance, impact investing and growing grants to corporations – “there is little direct evidence of positive outcomes for the global poor and considerable evidence that such trends tend to enrich the wealthy at the poor’s expense.”

In fact, the Zuckerberg billions aren’t even going to a charity as such, or even into a foundation, but into a limited liability company. It will, presumably, disburse funding to efforts the young couple deem worthy – not that you and I will ever know necessarily what those efforts are and whether or not they achieve anything. That’s the way such companies are set up.

And for me, this is the point.

When wealthy donors choose to support certain projects and initiatives, those choices are always based on their on their world views. It is, after all, their money.

It may provide medical care or save lives, but it won’t do anything to ensure that the poor will have a more permanent system, a state system, to provide such essential services.

Or it may, like the Gates foundation has, push a lot of investment into charter schools for American children. But it fails to consider the fact that maybe disadvantaged kids would have better educational opportunities if their parents earned a decent wage.

It’s clearly not the priorities of poor people that inform the choices made by these wealthy donors, business tycoons who have little idea of what it’s like to live as a disenfranchised person in a Third World country – or even in a rich country.

In my new book, The Anatomy of Giving, I devote less time that I would have liked to the fact that the Gates Foundation initially supported, then withdrew their support from, a very worthy organization – Slum/Shack Dwellers International, or SDI.

I write about the SDI in my previous book about grassroots social movements. Their affiliates in places of desperate urban poverty like India and South Africa work to empower the urban poor within grassroots social movements to demand tenure rights, land and better services, and also to recognize the capabilities and responsibilities of the poor. In fact, organizations like SDI, or the Indian Alliance, are not charities at all. So I was surprised when I learned that, some eight years ago, they got a big boost from the Gates’.

I felt less surprised and more cynical when I learned that, a few years later, the foundation decided to place their funding elsewhere. No real explanation for that from Melanie Walker, who directed that project: Mr. Gates and his board had simply decided that it “was no longer the best use of foundation resources for the kinds of poverty alleviation we were seeking.”

For people who consider themselves on the cutting edge of technological innovation it is disheartening to see how un-innovative their ideas on poverty, and the causes of poverty, are. They may talk about inequality, as Zuckerberg and Chan do in their announcement. But they don’t seem to understand that poverty has political roots. Change means changing the system. And changing the system means changing the way people think, and the relations between poor people and local elites.

The thing is: there are many movements and approaches that do make a difference in the lives of the poor. But they don’t seem to get much attention, or support, from the world’s billionaires.

Rather, each new super-donor comes to the table with not just a lot of money but with his or her own ideas of what needs to be done with it.

In that sense, would it not be a lot more helpful, a lot more revolutionary and innovative, if philanthrocapitalists actually gave away less money, but did so in ways that recognize the notion that there are already a lot of great solutions out there?

Those solutions don’t usually include the inflation of some important person’s ego, however. Maybe that’s why they don’t get the support they deserve from people like the Zuckerbergs or the Gates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Apple for the Teacher

4 Apr

 

Meet Rea Dol

Meet Rea Dol

Rea Dol is an educator and founder of SOPUDEP, the Society for the Provenance of Economic Development of Petion Ville. She runs a school in Morne Lazaire where children attend Grades 1 to 11, supported in large part by a Canadian named Ryan Sawatsky. Here is my Q and A with her, carried out on a Saturday morning last month at the mobile health for women clinic where she was volunteering.

 

How did you get into education?

My Mom, who had nine children, never had the chance when she was a little kid to go to school. So she went to literacy school and eventually became a teacher herself. And I was so happy to see my Mom working as a teacher, even though the pay was really small. When a program started to be a volunteer, I was inspired by my Mom.

When the literacy program started, I was a volunteer, in my classroom there were 35 children. It was difficult because I had the special program for adults.

So I know that in Haiti there are so many NGOs working with children. I sent a letter to them saying, ‘I have 35 children in my class. Could you make maybe just a quick visit to see how those kids could go to school?’ Most didn’t give me any answer. One of the big NGOs said, ‘go into your community, do a survey to see if you find more children.’”

(She did that, and found many more families who could not afford to send their children to school but Plan International, the organization that had suggested she do this in the first place, was not interested in helping.)

But I’m not discouraged because I wanted to do something for the kids. So I went to the mayor of Petion Ville, and one day I was surprised. I saw a car with police, and it was the mayor. He said, oh, you’re doing a good job. If you find a place, I will give you authorization to start a school.’” That how I founded SOPUDEP.

(The place Rea found was a house belonging to a Tonton Macoute named Lionel Wooley who fled Haiti after the fall of Duvalier regime. She started her school 14 years ago with over 300 students, and now has 837. She is also building a new school at in Delmas that is almost ready to open.)

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There are lots of private schools in Haiti, charging as much as $500 a year. Why is yours different from other privately-run schools?

One difference is when the kids come to my school it is like a family. So it’s not only they come to learn. We try to give a good education and training for life to the kids. Any problems the children have, they can come to us, even if it is boyfriend problems.

The parents who can afford to pay for their children, pay $10 a month, but 40 percent of the parents can’t afford to pay, and their kids come to school anyway. For example, this February, if I could have enough from the parents to pay two teachers, I would be so happy. Anyway the kids come to school because I have a partner in Canada who helps me pay the teachers.

After they finish high school we also try to find a way — because most kids in Haiti, when they finish high school, if their parents don’t have any way to send them to university, they are just sitting there doing nothing. But at SOPUDEP, we try with the friends we have outside, to help them go to university.

Why is that needed ?

The reason that is important in Haiti is because most of the parents they are like people who have given up. They don’t think about what will happen to their kids. If you want to go to school, go to school. If you want to study, study. If you want to do something, that’s your choice. So they don’t really care about their kids. Because in Haiti, the misery is a big big challenge. So its part of the job of the teachers at SOPUDEP to try and talk to the kids, even if it just for 15 minutes.

Education in Haiti has different faces, not only the kids come to learn to read, but you must have other accompaniment for the children because they need that.

Do you have to train your teachers to do that?

 It’s a problem when the teachers sometimes don’t accept to do that. They follow the ministry curriculum, they don’t have time. (So) you inspire the teacher to do that.

How do you do that?

Not only the teachers, all the staff , I try to convince them: when you work with children you must be happy every day! The kids make you happy. You have to inspire people, not tell them you must do this, you must do that. You must follow me. No!

(Now some her students are organizing to do volunteer work. They asked her for some advice on how to collect money, and she suggested they start saving whatever money they could, and keep it at the school. Now different classes are competing to try to set up their own programs. “It’s really amazing!” she said. She also gets them to do volunteer work with her. )

We have to change the culture. Its not outside people who are going to make that change for us, even if they are volunteers, even if they have ideas for change, even if they have all the money in the world. Nothing will change if I don’t have any will to change my country. We must start here. That’s why I need the children to start here. That’s why I need the teachers to start here. I need everybody to start here.

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We started very small, I didn’t even US$10 in SOPUDEP bank account. But I have ideas and will and all the determination to create something for young people, for women. So now people know.

Tell me a bit about the education system in Haiti. I know that only about 20 per cent of Haitian children go to public schools that do not charge fees, that many do not attend school at all and that there are many schools nick-named borlettes, or lotteries, because parents have no idea if their child will come out with an education or not.

The system of education we have in Haiti is a mess. We have to change it. There are many schools they call borlette, where someone sees all the kids who don’t go to school, they maybe have a room, so they put a bench and call it a school. The government is supposed to inspect this school, but it doesn’t.

What about rural schools?

 Very few teachers in the rural schools are accredited or have the education to be a teacher. And if they work for a public school, a government school, they can go three months, six or ten, without getting paid. That’s why if today I can come, I will, but tomorrow, if I have something else to do, I just leave.

What about President Martelly’s new National Fund for Education?

 That’s another mess. In SOPUDEP, for example, they take 45 children in each grade. If you have more, they take 45, they don’t care about the rest. So for the 45 students they pay US $90 per year. Just now, this year, they gave the money from last year. And the bank takes off a fee as well.

I think what the government should do is take 45 children, or 90 children, off the street, new students, and give the money for them. Right now it’s not a new group of children who go to school for free. The way they make the program is not good. They are supposed to build more public schools, more high schools, and pay the teachers, not the people who have private schools, who already make a lot of money.

So private schools also have the right to this $90?

 Exactly.

How optimistic are you that things can change in Haiti?

It will take time. But I believe Haiti can change. It is our responsibility to make this change, not the NGOs.

 

 

Book Review: The Idealist

13 Dec

9780385525817In April 2008 I visited a Millennium Village in Senegal called Potou with the idea of doing an article on what a bad idea the whole thing was.

Instead, it surprised me by turning out to very different from everything I had read about Jeffrey Sachs’ anti-poverty enterprise: well thought out, collaborative with local government and NGOs, and, in particular, based in large part on gathering community opinions on the project, or what its director, Omar Diouf, called “awareness raising.” Individual peasant farmers and heads of rural unions told me how sure they were that  by the end of the project’s five-year life span, they would be able to go it on their own. In fact, Mr. Diouf told me that what he had seen in Sachs’ other villages convinced him to greatly alter the MVP modus operandi.

Hence, no article.

But as soon as I got wind of Nina Munk’s book on Sachs and the MVPs, The Idealist, I was immediately curious. While she concentrates on two villages, one in Kenya, called Dertu and another in Uganda, called Ruhiira, the whole MVP set up was already getting a poor marks on the report cards of external evaluators and experts in development. Their main cavil was that Sachs’ claims of massive improvements in the quality of life for people in the poor African communities it had targeted were a) greatly inflated, b) impossible to prove, and c) could not necessarily be attributed to his project. There was no way, they said, to compare what would have happened in those villages had the MVP not come along by without looking at other similar villages that had not received this influx of aid.

And indeed, Ms. Munk’s research only supports their doubts. There were many times when I was reading this fascinating and well-paced book, shaking my head and thinking, ‘No. I can’t believe they did that.’ She describes, for example, the building of a livestock market in the village of Dertu and, in Ruhiira,  the switch from the usual cultivation of matoke bananas to corn and beans, heavily doused with chemical fertilizers — both Sachs’ idea.

The market no one asked for remained largely ignored by the pastoralist community of Dertu, even though their old market was a two-day walk away. And the bumper corn crops in Ruhiira found no buyers, being too far away from anyone who wanted to buy them. Other business ventures — like pineapples and cardamom — ran into similar brick walls.

What stands out in this book, and in the philosophy behind Sachs’ projects, is the way it simply drops its theories and advice into the desperately poor communities that have been chosen. People are persuaded to do things that make sense to Sachs and the experts working at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, only to find that they bring with them too many downsides. Millions of dollars are spent on improving health clinics, schools, and other collective infrastructure, but there is nothing to sustain them. Neither the Ugandan or Kenyan government was exactly eager to take on the expense of running them, and no one was seeing enough growth in revenue to start paying user fees. Education ministries didn’t provide text books, ill-paid teachers still went AWOL, no one cared to clean out the MVP-built latrines, and all the Sony-donated laptops disappeared.

At the same time, Ms. Munk points out, the influx of money in Dertu started attracting new residents to its arid confines, pastoralists who decided to “abandon their nomadic way of life and settle in and around (it).” Trash began to fill the ditches between people’s houses while the money the MVP local director gave  a newly formed “Garbage Committee” to cart it away somewhere vanished. The little local businesses, like Sahlan Bath Hussein’s tea shop, which  sprouted up were inundated by more competitive newcomers.

Yet what we are seeing here, I believe, is not poor people’s unwillingness to embrace progress and think about the collective, but rather a super re-tread of the whole foreign aid paradigm. “That predominant paradigm,” says Gord Cunningham, assistant director of the Coady Institute in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, “has been around fixing what’s wrong with communities. Identifying needs. And then, how we can help fix those deficits.” And while it does represent “a positive and well-meaning evolution from communities not getting much help at all and being completely exploited, the bottom line is that there have been a number of unintended consequences of this approach. One is that leaders in communities really start to look for what can come from outside, versus what they can do for themselves. They also get judged on how many resources they can bring in. That seems to be a measure of success rather than on how good the community becomes dealing with its own issues.”

Aside from the holistic approach identified by Mr. Diouf, the only thing that is new about the MVPs is the concerted push of resources, millions of donor dollars, thrown at one particular micro-region. Like the Millennium Development Goals, as the Earth Institute PR guy told me last year they were “trying to accomplish,” the idea is to demonstrate what the London-based Institute for Environment and Development’s Tom Biggs called the “effectiveness of aid, setting up the hypothetical framework that aid is hugely significant in the delivery of change, when it can only ever be a catalyst, or a significant factor in only a limited number of very poor countries.”

Some reviewers have taken issue with The Idealist for seemingly concluding that foreign aid never does any good, and underline Ms. Munk’s lack of knowledge of development. But I don’t see this so much as yet another cautionary tale about the inevitable pitfalls of the way so much foreign aid works. Sometimes, as Potou would seem to indicate, yes, it can work. It can work when there are lots of existing actors on the ground, a stable government that already provides some limited services — like electricity —  local organizations that are able to take advantage of the money and training, and above all, MVP staffers who, as Mr. Diouf said, “re-visited and reworked the concept to adapt it to our reality.” This was not the situation in either Kenya or Uganda — or Mali, where one project had to be shut down after a coup.

But it won’t work when there has been no process of placing the reins of change in the hands of the communities themselves — a long process, no doubt about it, that requires a lot of listening and pondering and cooperation — and when there is no consideration given to the sustainability, to real growth, however modest, in incomes, to at least some kind of serious buy-in on the part of local governments. Indeed, aside from  the Coady Institute, says Mr. Cunningham, “there are a lot of people who are trying a more strength-based, or asset-based, approach, that essentially recognizes the power of a community building assets rather than just relying on outside solutions.”

At the end of the book, as we read about new problems, slashed budgets, and staff fired out of frustration, Ms. Munk interviews “a member of Sachs’ inner circle in New York,” who says, “In hindsight it was like we were set up to fail. It’s not that Jeff’s ideas are wrong– he’s a big, inspiring thinker. It’s that the project’s ambition moved more quickly than capacity.”

But more likely, its problems can be laid at the door of outmoded ways of thinking about aid, one that merely talks the talk of community participation and management. As one complaint went — out of a list of 14 compiled by the owner of Dertu’s drugstore — “The project is supposed to be bottom top approached but it is vice versa.”

Even so, Sachs managed to get enough fresh funding to continue his Millennium Village Project for another five years.

Aside from Potou, however, this book also reminded me of Haiti, where Cantave Jean-Baptiste, the director of Partners in Local Development, would be happy to have even a tenth of what the Earth Institute can afford to spend. When he would go to a poor village, he says, “They ask, ‘what are you bringing us?’ And I say, ‘We’re not bringing anything. We have come to understand where you live what are your challenges and together we will see if there is some means of helping you with some of the obstacles.’”

Fool’s Gold

4 Sep

Fields of Fool's Gold So- called ‘Golden Rice’ is back.

If, that is, it ever really went away.

I remember people talking about Golden Rice several years ago — and not in very complementary terms either. What’s with spending millions of dollars figuring out how to get more vitamins into white rice when it could be spent on promoting small-holder agriculture, land reform and anti-urban-poverty initiatives in general so people could add some vegetables to their rice?

Or on food education showing how cheaper brown rice is much healthier?

But now the spectre of this genetically modified rice is coming at the urban poor again, this time with a golden halo of self-righteousness that imbues it with altruistic life- and sight-saving miracle powers.

“We’re talking about saving millions of lives here,” said Nina Fedoroff, a professor and former science adviser to the Bush administration, in the New York Times recently. Dr. Fedoroff even helped spearhead a petition supporting Golden Rice, signed by thousands of like-minded scientists, many of whom “vented a simmering frustration with activist organizations like Greenpeace, which they see as playing on misplaced fear of genetic engineering in both the developing and developed worlds,” said the Times.

Yes, at issue now is not the absurdity of going to extraordinary, typically technical, First World lengths to deal with malnutrition instead of acknowledging that we already produce enough food for everyone on the planet, but just don’t have a system whereby the poor can afford to buy it. It has instead been cloaked with an aura of legitimate scientific research, the kind that could see all kinds of foodstuffs beefed up with nutrients and other cool stuff. Complaining about genetically modifying — as opposed to using natural hybridization techniques to improve  — what we eat is like complaining about progress itself, in this scenario. After all, as former Monsanto engineer Gerard Barry puts it, the idea of the poor eating healthy, abundant and varied diets is both expensive and logistically challenging.

Right.  So it’s okay for the poor to eat nothing but a couple of bowls of white rice everyday — or roti or tortillas — as long as it contains some beta-carotene.

It reminds me of something the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Diana Mitlin said to me in London earlier this year, about how “one of the appalling things about development is it’s lack of ambition.”

This came up actually in the context of the Millennium Development Goals and its (still unachieved) plan to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Indeed. Why half? “The whole concept almost goes back to, you know, Sophie’s Choice,” said Ms. Mitlin. “Which of her two children is she going to save? Which of my two children am I going to give water to?”

Today’s critics of Golden Rice are calling it a “Trojan Horse” that will help convince farmers that GM products are, in general,  not such a bad thing after all. They won’t even have to pay royalties to plant it.

But for me the very notion that someone even thought about devising something like Golden Rice is a seriously dangerous one. An either-or proposition that actually reinforces the status quo of inequality that creates entire populations of people who are dying of hunger, it’s one that says, “We really don’t care if you  are poor and hungry. We just want to make your paltry rations slightly more nutritious.’

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Book Review: Fault Lines

15 Aug

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The Haiti earthquake of 2010 has inspired rather a lot of books and articles describing  personal experiences of its extraordinarily destruction — or maybe it only appears that way to me as I do my own research on the effects of development aid and philanthropy in a nation that seems to lurch from one disaster to the next without much, if any, signs of progress.

Now author and activist Beverly Bell has added her voice to those of writers like Paul Farmer, Amy Wilentz, and Jonathan Katz with Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide.

But it would be a mistake to think she is simply giving us another version of the same horrific scenes and tragic stories of injury and loss.

There are verbal pictures of sidewalks replaced by “ground concrete that looked as if it had been through a blender, and rebar bent like bread-wrapper twist ties,” and anecdotes of people finally making it home only to find that their entire family was dead.  What makes Fault Lines unique is that it is the only book I have come across which grounds the earthquake and its aftermath in the points of view of people who have been largely missing from the rest, those of Haiti’s many, usually ignored, grassroots social movements.

It is thanks to Bell that we learn, for example, of the relief project set up by the Association  for the Promotion of Integrated Family Health in the Carrefour-Feuilles section of Port au Prince to provide daily meals to people who had lost everything in the earthquake. With some international support money, APROSIFA contacted 60 neighbourhood street vendors and paid them to purchase food from Haitian farmers and cook meals for ten to fifteen specific homeless families. Officially, the project provided food for approximately 4800 people every day. In fact, that number was far higher, she writes, “because when the women finished serving those they were responsible for, they kept dishing out food to hungry folks who dropped by until their pots were empty.”

In Belair, another extremely poor part of the Haitian capital, an organization with a long history in the neighbourhood called Solidarite Ant Jen (Solidarity Among Youth) took over a damaged kindergarten and began offering shelter and meals to four hundred displaced, along with medical and psychological care.

And in the country’s Central Plateau, the Mouvman Peyizan Papay provided lodging, meals and clothing to several dozen of the estimated 600,000 earthquake victims that fled the damaged capital and thus received no international disaster aid at all. The movement took up a collection to help peasant families inundated by the sudden return of traumatized relatives and even slaughtered two cows so they could bring food to patients at the Partners in Health hospital in nearby Mirebalais.

It is not that international participation was entirely absent from these projects. In Belair, water was delivered by a Canadian non-profit and some funding came from a German company. But unlike the vast majority of well-meaning emergency aid efforts – often surrounded by foreign soldiers and in some cases throwing sacks of rice out of helicopters “as if we were dogs,” as many complain to Bell — these alternative programs were set up and directed by Haitians. In these few salient cases, our good intentions met their terms,  their requirements.

The difference is summed up by APROSIFA’s Rose Anne Auguste when she points out that local organizations like hers “have our own vision of reconstruction for our country. We have a philosophy that corresponds to our reality, not the reality of the international community. What we want is for the international community, the foundations and agencies, to hear our philosophy and our dream for our people, our country.”

But that indigenous vision was rarely taken into account as hundreds of international agencies, large and small, scrambled to deal with symptoms — the medical emergencies and the lack of housing, food and water. It was also largely ignored during the post-earthquake reconstruction phase as well. As the tide of cash that flowed into Haiti in the early months of 2010 receded again, what has been left littering the shore are hundreds of examples of foreign plans and initiatives that fail to meet the needs of Haiti’s vast majority of poor.

“Corporations with little or no knowledge  of Haiti,” Bell writes, “were brought in as volunteers to plan, kick off and even staff the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the actor with the single greatest operational influence over shaping the reconstruction model after the quake.”

Talk about Haiti with most people and they will inevitably ask what happened to all the money that was pledged and donated by governments, international lending institutions and regular folk like them. The short answer is: we just don’t know. A lot went back to donor governments, with the United States, for example, using half of its $1.3 billion relief funding to pay itself for its emergency efforts and security.

Of the just over $6 billion in financial aid from global donors, including Canada, almost 90 percent went to non-Haitian organizations. Less than ten percent — $580 million –went to the Haitian government, and less than  one percent — $36 million — to local Haitian NGOs and businesses. As a Canadian International Agency press release announcing an initial grant of $150 million put it, every dollar would go “to facilitate rapid action by trusted and experienced humanitarian agencies.”

But how those agencies spent, and on what, is considered proprietary information. While some of it may have been helpful, “the lack of transparency,” writes Bell, “has also empowered opportunists to disregard standards, quality and honesty.”

The justification used by the majority of big donors, many of which have been working in Haiti for decades, is that local institutions and government lack “absorptive capacity,”  the ability to use the money properly. Yet as Solidarity among Youth volunteer and psychology professor Lenz Jean-Francois tells Bell, “what will traumatize the Haitian people even more than the thirty-five seconds of the earthquake is finding themselves, from one day to the next, standing with bowls in their hands and waiting for someone to give them a sheet so they can sleep. This dependence is terrible for people’s identity. People need to know we can count on ourselves. We have the capacity.”

As Fault Lines so clearly shows, the 2010 earthquake response only mirrors the inadequacies of decades of top-down development aid, with impoverished Haitians obliged to take whatever they can get rather than designing and implementing their own ideas for social and economic progress, supported by our collective solidarity. Well-intentioned as many non-profits may be, what they cannot do, says Bell is “alter the structural nonaccountability between  their employer, the government of their host country, and the people with whom they work. The agencies’ foreign funding, largely foreign staff and political relationship with Haiti dictate much about their effects in Haiti.”

More heartening news however can be seen in the continued combative response of dozens of organizations, which may have lost their offices, their only computer and even their own members in those fateful thirty-five seconds of devastation. Fault Lines describes how they have demonstrated against donations of Monsanto seeds, and for proper housing. They have forced the courts to bring criminal cases against men who raped girls and women in the IDP camps. Their relentless campaigning may seem modest, even puny, compared to big, publicity-grabbing schemes like five-star hotels and the Caracol Industrial Park, like a shout in a hurricane. But they are the best hope there is for solutions to the vast inequality that lies at the intersection of Haiti’s social and economic tectonic plates.

Injured Child in Port-au-Prince (Photo:American Red Cross)

Injured Child in Port-au-Prince (Photo:American Red Cross)

(A slightly longer version of this review came out today in Rabble.ca)

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

7 Jun

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Perhaps the true genius of this book by Katherine Boo becomes most apparent when you realize that the title is not a bit of poetry meant to attract literary kudos, but refers to a row of billboards lining the road advertising a brand of wall tiles.

Behind them lies Annawadi, the slice of undercity referenced in the book’s  subtitle, Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum.

The stories this book tells are real — although as dramatic as any Brazilian soap opera — and are those of the people living in that slum, its garbage pickers and dealers, its children, its ambitious kindergarten teacher yearning for political power – and young Abdul, a 17-year-old Muslim buyer and sorter of trash falsely accused of murder.

Boo’s writing brings us so intimately into his life and the life of this community that one can only wonder at the author’s patience and determination to pierce its wall of language, culture and vast economic disparity in order to do so.

These portraits also reveal the Byzantine complexity of a typical slum’s many power relationships — within families, within the slum itself, with the rest of the city and from there to the world beyond it. For indeed there are, behind the scenes, politicians hoping to win votes and foreigners hoping to do good. There is some cementing of footpaths and piping of water paid for either by government or NGOs.

Yet it becomes obvious, how very ineffectual these poverty alleviation attempts can be: the women’s self-help group that is manipulated by the less poor, the funding of so-called bridge schools for labouring children that ends up in the pockets of its organizers, the dreadful Sister Paulette who searches for orphans who are not orphans in order to draw foreigners’ money.

Designed as they may well be to try to deal with poverty and inequality, almost any scheme, it would seem, is easily gamed, and come to resemble the very recycling industry on which many in Annawadi depend for survival: bits of wire or an odd screw, left-overs picked up after those in power — the police, politicians, money lenders or even the less poor – have taken the lion’s share.

There are pretty clearly no “partnerships” here between aid agencies and the poor. As Boo writes, “(W)hen foreign journalists came to Mumbai to see whether self-help groups were empowering women, government officials sometimes took them to see Asha. Her job was to gather random female neighbours to smile demurely while the officials went on about how their collective had lifted them from poverty.”

This book reminds me of course of my experiences in Dharavi and Byculla  with members of the National Slum Dwellers Federation and its sister organization Mahila Milan. They are missing in this story – and sadly in Annawadi, as well.

For while many in Annawadi share their values and capabilities, the lack of organization means that  although the slum dwellers often got mad at their mistreatment, they “rarely got mad together.” And so, as Boo concludes, “the gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached.”

I feel a bit uncomfortable using this amazing book as a pulpit from which to expound the virtues of the grassroots movement I came to know and respect during my (brief) stay in Mumbai, instead of simply letting myself enjoy Boo’s luminous writing and wonderful true characters. But I can’t help it, really. As I made my way through it, I couldn’t help thinking about Sangira Ansari from Mahila Milan, who told me, “It is such a big thing to obtain a house of our own, that we feel this is our strength, and because of that we want to tell people to join. There are lots of people like us and we should support them.”