Tag Archives: urban poverty

What’s for Lunch?

1 Oct
CC Photo by B.Adams

CC Photo by B.Adams

Well, if you are poor, these little creepy crawlies apparently.

A group of McGill University MBA students won a prestigious award from Bill Clinton last week, for having the best idea for a new social enterprise. This year’s challenge for the annual Hult Prize, which consists of a million bucks and some mentoring from top international business persons, was to come up with a solution to secure food for undernourished communities, particularly in urban slums. Their idea: insect farming.

That’s right. Along with Golden Rice, the urban poor might now improve their diets with ground up insects, which are nutritious, sustainable, already consumed by lots of people in the Global South and, I assume, cheaper than other protein sources like pulses or meat.

But I have an even better idea for Mr. Clinton and the Hult B-School poobahs. Land Reform!

Here’s my business plan: An astonishing number of Third World countries have both big populations of rural landless or land poor and, at the same time, enormous tracts of empty fertile land belonging either to the state or to very rich, absentee landlords. (So much in fact that they can afford to lease such land for mere pennies to multi-national corporations based in other nations.)

Take this land and divide it up among these rural families so that each one has enough to cultivate and earn a decent living. Those families will then be able to feed themselves, instead of being net buyers of food as most of them are, taking some pressure off of markets.

With the money they earn from actually selling to those markets instead of buying, they will be able to send their children to school, helping to end illiteracy and ignorance.

They will also be able to purchase things they need, helping to boost local economies, instead of abandoning their tiny plots and actually swelling urban slums seeking jobs that don’t exist.

Having enough land will also allow them to plant more trees to protect their water sources and help halt global warming. And lots of rural grassroots social movements are already organized to facilitate such transfers in an equable manner and offer agricultural advice and support.

Oh, and did I forget to mention this? It’s also inherently fair.

Maybe my idea is too logical for global decision-makers, because I don’t think any MBA students have ever thought of this. World Bank economists and big donors have also failed to suggest this as a solution to poverty. (Look at Zimbabwe! They say. Look at South Korea! I say.)

No, it is somehow more logical — and let’s face it, the market is based on rational behaviour, right?  — to spend millions of dollars tinkering around the edges of the real issue, the real cause of Third world poverty, which is the unequal distribution of resources.

Those MBA students may be congratulating themselves for their million-dollar windfall by putting bugs on the menu of the urban poor — while fighting off accusations of plagiarizing the research of a fellow student — but I’m not buying it. Nor should you, and nor should the poor. We can do better than this. And if we don’t, it’s because we don’t really want to.


Book Review: Fault Lines

15 Aug


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


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.”

It’s Back!: Sand, Solidarity and Occupy Sandy

13 Nov

Photo: Natalia Porter

Last weekend while in New York doing research, I spent some time helping out at one of the many distribution centres set up in Brooklyn and other parts of the city now offering clothing, bedding, groceries and hot meals to people still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

Mine was in Coney Island and I only had to walk by one open door to a dank and ruined basement apartment, a mound of broken and softened drywall on the sidewalk, to imagine what having your home flooded is really like.

Down on the beachfront, with its iconic Ferris wheel and hotdog shacks, people were picking rubbish and wreckage off the shore and shoveling sand off of the boardwalk. Further up, mounds of trash were still piled onto the sidewalks, and parked cars left with the grimy imprint of rising water. ‘I want to buy your flood car,’ one enterprising person had written on signs taped to their windows, along with a phone number.

The place where I worked was a small evangelical temple with a mostly Hispanic congregation, and most of those arriving there with their little kids and many needs were immigrants from Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The church, itself barely cleared after being flooded as well, was packed with giant bags of and boxes of donated items. In the middle of it all, a long trestle table was spread with buffet-style metal servers of chicken, rice and chile con carne.

I spent most of my time sorting and dividing up the packs of clothing into boxes by age and gender; these would, in turn, be trucked out to other centres in the devastated Rockaways and Staten Island.

And one of the organizations sending out both volunteers by the dozen and  supplies by the ton was Occupy Sandy.

That’s right. The Occupy movement is back. And in New York, most of its energies are going towards providing — not charity, but mutual aid, as they like to call it — to Sandy’s many victims, especially the poor. People who lost not only personal possessions but electrical power, heat and in some cases, their homes.

“This is a tragedy that is still unfolding,” as a guy named Justin had put it earlier in the day at an Episcopal church in Clinton Heights, where people young and old were showing up in droves to see what they could do.

Occupy Sandy was restocking “a bunch of recovery sites,” he told a group of us. “People are communicating what the needs are with us through different means to let us know what’s going on,” he said, “and other people go to the recovery areas and distribute supplies out to individuals.”

According to Justin, Occupy Sandy — written up just last Sunday in the New York Times — was also looking for volunteers to go out into apartment buildings and talk to tenants as well. The idea was not so much to ask, ‘what do you need,’ but to engage in active listening. That way, he said, “they would become part of it as well; they start sharing the hotline number and resources and we can start amplifying our efforts.”

Occupy Wall Street got back together a couple of months ago in Zuccotti Park on its one-year anniversary, according to an older woman named Fatima, camped out in front of Trinity church in Lower Manhattan. While there was certainly a kind of organized disorganization to everything the previous day, the work Occupy Sandy was doing now wouldn’t have been possible, she said, without that two-month-old revival.

“One of the things it was able to establish was this network of people who had a common goal, as far as being the change you want to see in the rest of the world,” she said.

With the hurricane and its resulting chaos, “everybody was almost instantaneously able to mobilize, groups of volunteers who already know how to do a kitchen, how to contact each other and go into areas where there was nothing. Because that’s what the Park was; it was just a space that developed into a community within a couple of weeks with a kitchen, a media centre, a distribution centre, a mobile medical tent, everything a community needs,” she told me.

“For some of us,” she added, “it was about getting together, those of us with like minds, to figure out how to create a network to move this up and out and back into families and communities and address the issues that are going on.”

Based on their interests, abilities or perspectives, occupiers broke out into all kinds of different working groups, she said, “because there’s a million different issues on the table.”

Fatima said that she believed that, previously, most observers hadn’t seen what she called “the good that was being done behind the scenes” at Occupy, “that it is in the communities, that it is outreach and feeding station and free stores and ‘what can we do to help your community?’ It isn’t about charity because mutual aid is a community effort. It’s helping communities help themselves.”

Meanwhile, the tiny encampment at places like Trinity or the home of the CEO of Goldman Sachs was just a small part now of what Occupy was all about. “This is ground action,” she said, referring to the flattened cardboard and sleeping bags, bringing them some added visibility “and to set up a platform for people to come by and discuss and ‘oh, I didn’t know you were still here,’” she said, “because there’s a ton of Occupys throughout the city that people don’t see.”

So, aside from Sandy, what does the future hold for the Occupy movement? For Fatima, “now, we’re starting to blossom. It’s starting to resonate.

Yet it is still difficult, she admitted, “to figure out what we’re about, because we are all different people and come from different perspectives. But we all agree on one thing: something has to happen. Something’s got to change.”

Forty years from now — “because it takes a long time for stuff to happen” — the history books will have the final say, she felt, on this unusual and innovative but possibly unworkable movement. “Either they’ll say ‘how fabulous. Look at all the stuff they’ve done. Or else they’ll say, what a bunch of assholes. We don’t know.”

The thing about social movements is that there is no way to predict what will happen to them. The important thing, however, is that they are there, like all those young people who understand that solidarity is part of what makes us human, and that whatever our problems, we are all in this together.

A stupid, ill-conceived and pernicious plan…

9 Jul

On the road to development?

A recent article in the New York Times about a new industrial zone in northern Haiti has inspired me to write something myself about the country’s notorious apparel industry.

Last May I spoke to the director of an International Labour Organization program called Better Work, mostly just to get some background on this controversial source of employment. Better Work doesn’t advocate for better wages and working conditions, as I had thought. Rather, it carries out twice yearly surveys of conditions in the factories in three existing industrial parks, two in the capital and one in Ouanaminthe, as stipulated by the U.S. act that allows in Haitian-assembled textile products free of the usual tariff. The current act, called HOPE II — for Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement — is an indication of a long-standing thesis that the overall cure to Haiti’s problems is to get peasant farmers and their families to abandon their tiny plots of land and pick up a salaried job instead.

Cheap labour plus the ability to export products tariff-free into the world’s largest market equals a competitive edge over other nations with low-cost labour. It means Haitian companies can offer an attractive package to foreign companies like Levis, Hanes or Montreal-based Gildan Activewear, to name only a few, assembling their clothing for them and shipping it to the U.S.

But right now, those companies and their Haitian contractors have a problem: a global economic recession that means that not enough consumers are buying their products. This hasn’t stopped the kind of people I consider pathological altruists from insisting that Haiti needs more textile assembly plants, whether they actually foster working-class prosperity or not. Nor has the fact that the 26 existing apparel factories in Haiti — down from about 80 in the late 80s/early 90s — are apparently having problems receiving enough orders.

And so, as part of U.S. post earthquake reconstruction efforts, a new factory complex is being set up in the north, near a town called Caracol. The plan garnered some harsh scrutiny in the Times, and is well worth a read. The article describes how, defying logic, a square mile of fertile farmland in a coastal area previously scheduled for environmental protection because of its vulnerable mangrove forests and reefs was chosen, its 366 peasant farmers paid to leave their lots and to dream big. Fulltime jobs and 365-square-foot houses were on their way!

A Korean firm called Sae-A Trading, which makes over $1 billion a year supplying clothing to retailers like Wal-mart and Gap Inc., is moving in. It will apparently kick in $39 million (compared to an estimated $224 million in US taxpayer subsidies) and has pledged to hire 20,000 workers. It will get housing for its workers, a port, and a special heavy-oil-burning power plant to generate a steady supply of electricity, all for free. For the U.S. power brokers who imposed the deal on Haiti, moreover, the fact that Sae-A has a bit of a nasty history with their former workers in Guatemala was immaterial.

And so is the reality of the entire history of cheap-labour enclaves in other parts of Haiti, the glaring picture of poverty their presence has done absolutely nothing to mitigate.

That’s why my interview with Better Work was so interesting.

Until 2009, a day in a textile plant earned a Haitian worker the equivalent of $1.75 or 70 gourdes.  Then-president Rene Preval wanted to raise that to 200 gourdes, but sector bosses cried foul, saying that because they used a quota system — whereby workers had to finish so many pieces a day — this meant that they would in fact have to pay more and they had already agreed to contracts with their foreign buyers calculating the lower rate. The Haitian government said, ‘OK, the minimum wage will be $3, or 125 gourdes, and if a worker fulfils his or her quota, they’ll get the $5.’ (In 2010, the minimum went up to $5 — and to $6 if quotas are filled.)

But according to Better Work, only 22 per cent of workers manage to actually do so in an 8-hour day. That means they are working 9 or 10 hours to get their six bucks.

“It’s not so much that targets are set too high,” said my Better Work contact, “they are probably a little bit too high, but it’s more that the workers arrive at work after not sleeping well. They live in houses that are very hot, they have no electricity or fans; there is a lot of noise, a lot of discomfort. They must be (at the plant) at 6:30 and some walk, some take two or even three tap-taps; some do not eat breakfast, some have one meal per day, so they are not properly fed. They do not drink much water and often this water is not clean. The factories are very hot and the machines are old. Only a few factory managers invest in new equipment, so most of the machines are bad quality.”

He offered other details that fill in the despairing picture of the life of the average industrial park worker. Only a few of the plants — most of which employ 1000 each — has a cafeteria. Instead, workers get an hour to sit in the searing sun by the side of the street to eat their lunch. There are a few areas with benches and trees but many workers don’t want to use them because they don’t want their co-workers want to see that they have brought nothing but some boiled spaghetti to eat.

And he told me about one plant that tried to comply with the Haitian labour law that allows nursing mothers an hour off to breastfeed their babies, but stopped when eight babies were left behind because their anonymous mothers couldn’t afford to keep them.

Yet, for people like Bill and Hilary Clinton, not to mention hundreds of foreign government bureaucrats, this is the right road to take towards development. Investments in industry — as opposed to, say, land reform and agricultural assistance — are to be not only encouraged but celebrated.

Caracol will simply join the ranks of exploitative workplaces where wages are a mere step up from starvation. It will pollute the bay on which it is built and ruin the tiny remnants of a local fishing industry. It will destroy the environment, as much as the souls of its workers, and contaminate the air with its noxious fuel-burning power plant.

And the only way it will ever provide jobs to 20,000 workers is by gutting the business of existing factories in a place where post-earthquake construction really is needed.

So it is a stupid, ill-conceived and pernicious plan. But sometimes it seems there is no use arguing common sense to a foreign person who thinks he — or she — knows what’s best for Haiti. And as so often when I looked at foreign projects landed like aliens from outer space into a nation few understand or want to, I can’t help but wonder who exactly is supposed to benefit? Because when it comes to Caracol, the clear winner is Sae-A Trading. And the losers, yet again, are the people of Haiti.

Wiki-Solutions for a Hungry World

7 Apr

Sculpture: Natalia Porter

This month AlertNet, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s news site for humanitarian issues, is posting submissions from the general public for its multi-media special report on  solutions to global hunger. This is my “silver bullet” idea:

A tragic paradox envelops the lives of small holding farmers throughout the Global South. They want to make a living from the land, but the economics of small scale farming force them to migrate to constantly expanding urban slums. Food prices rise as millions of peasant farmers lack the means — from enough land to sound eco-agricultural advice — to produce enough of a surplus to sell to the hungry. The world needs farmers while at the same time they make up the majority of its poor.

Yet the answer to the dilemma rests with peasant farmers themselves, and in ever increasing numbers, they know this. They are organizing themselves in democratic grassroots movements throughout the developing world, not only demanding but also working for change. From Indonesia to Senegal, and from Haiti to Brazil, the landless and the land poor are finding solutions to the contradictions of today’s macro-economic imperatives.

Here are just a few examples: The Serikat Petani Indonesia is not only working with their 700,000 members to reclaim land stolen during the Suharto dictatorship, but encouraging increased yields using organic techniques that cost nothing. In Senegal, regional farmers organizations, like the Union of Peasant Groups of Mehknes, ask all members to surround their plots with trees and to grow the drought-resistant crops their forefathers planted. Participation in Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement, or MST, has permitted more than 350,000 families to own land and to run cooperatives, schools and small enterprises. Even in Haiti, where land is at a premium and instability a seeming fact of life, peasant organizations working with La Via Campesina and Partenaires de Developement Locale are taking the initiative and breaking free from both top-down solutions to improve and manage better production methods. The government of Brazil, for example, is basing all of its agricultural foreign aid to Haiti on advice from the La Via Campesina and the MST.

These are just a few of the many organizations flowering throughout regions we typically associate with poverty and helplessness. Other developing world nations with national peasant organizations include the Philippines, Thailand and Mozambique.  While their members don’t lack ideas, a sense of initiative or  a determination to succeed, finding the funding to expand their outreach is always a challenge.

Meanwhile, little of the billions of dollars affluent nations spend on foreign aid is going to support farmers and their families.  Rather, too many First-World development policies comprise a vision of letting giant agri-business conglomerates take care food production and leaving farming families no choice but to join an already vast labour force that will struggle to survive on cut-rate wages in modern factories and sweatshops. No wonder donors are asking themselves why so much poverty still exists in the countries to which they have been sending their money for decades.

At the same time the effectiveness and purpose of so many aid projects are being questioned, simple solutions are at hand — and have been for quite some time.

Just imagine if those of us in the rich countries could help the millions of small farmers in the developing world achieve land justice and plentiful crops.

Try and picture the results in farming villages when agriculturalists embrace their knowledge and abilities to produce healthy crops to sustain themselves and their urban counterparts.

Ask the average person who donates money to charity, and they are likely to react with enthusiasm at the idea, at the image of productive land, life-giving clusters of woods, decent schools and clinics, and vibrant markets filled with the fruits of the peasant farmer’s labour rather than wasted aid dollars, pounds and euros.

It is time to change the picture of rural poverty to one of rural power. Along with our donations to those NGOs that concentrate on empowering farmers, we can also pressure our governments to switch from foreign aid conditionalities that impoverish Third World economies to ones that insist on meaningful re-distribution of fertile land. In the United States, Canada and Britain, average people can tell their governments that we no longer want our tax money to spent on food dumping but on buying locally produced food for feeding programs and on practical help for farmers. How? Using a number of methods, from social media and the Internet to Amnesty International-style letter-writing campaigns, average people can influence government policies.

Aside from alleviating rural poverty, two immeasurably valuable consequences will come with this. First of all, we will find peasant farmers themselves taking on the task of conserving and protecting local forests and other fragile habitats. Environmental protection is already a hallmark of most if not all peasant movements.

Secondly, as their livelihoods improve, rural populations will feel empowered to demand accountability from their governments, insisting on honest and wise use of their nation’s financial resources.

The rural poor don’t want handouts and they don’t want banishment to dysfunctional lives in a slum. They want to land to till, fair markets in which to sell the fruits of their labour, and respect.  We can and must make it clear to our leaders and policy-makers that we want the same.

What do you think can be done to alleviate global hunger? I would love to hear your comments and your own ideas.

First Impressions

6 Feb

Before my trip to Haiti, I imagined myself making almost daily contributions to The Global Kiosk, either short- or medium-sized doses of observations, facts and maybe even some analysis. But the longer I spent there, the less easy the wrapping up of my days became. I could blame the shortage of electricity and the wonky laptops at the nearest cyber cafe, or even the debilitating heat and a fairly busy schedule.


But the truth is, the longer I spent in Port au Prince, the more complicated and massive the job of taking it all in seemed.

Take CR3, for example, the IDP camp I wrote about in my first (and only!) entry:  further research indicated that many people in it and other camps may not necessarily actually be homeless, as such. Many are, but others stake out spots in the hopes they may get a better home with tenure rights sometime in the future. Or else the few services they get in the camps are better — or at least no worse — than what they had before. (Only recently did I hear a story from a CBC journalist about searching for someone previously interviewed in one camp, and learning that not only was that person not there, but that the family had members living in various camps, in case something better came up in one or another, thus allowing all of them to move.)

Then there is the line that all of the traditional international NGOs I looked into are adhering to. They maintained that their development projects are designed with civil society and local organization actors. Yet if that were true — and had been since they began working in Haiti — then surely one would see some incremental results of better lives and some prosperity in pockets of the country. Only I couldn’t really say I did.

Rather, it is the picture of poverty, one at a level where living in a tent in dusty crowded camp is a legitimate housing option, that is overwhelming. That and the total lack of most essential services, including water — only about 20% of people have access to tap water, electricity — available for a few hours a day, usually in the middle of the night — and garbage collection — basically non-existent. Even street sweepers, of which there are many, can be seen tipping their wheelbarrows of refuse into the nearest stream or canal.

And so a person tends to empathize with a government that doesn’t do anything simply because it is obvious that anyone would wonder where to even begin, especially when there is no funding. Fix the water and sewage systems or the power lines? Pick up the trash or clear the rubble? Build schools, or houses? And if you do build those houses, who gets to move into them: people in camps or people in camps who really have nowhere else at all to go?

No one, moreover, wants to trust the Martelly government to do any of it. And considering how much money President Martelly has spent on new SUVs and travel per diems for himself and his enlarged retinue, how could anyone object? (His ‘solution’ for dealing with the people in the camps so far, for example, has to simply provide them rent money for a year — something that could have been done back in 2010. And only those encamped in public spaces qualify, not people on privately-owned land.)

Complain about the pernicious effect of food aid, which is basically dumping subsidized food from the U.S., Canada and Europe, and you will be told, well, Haiti doesn’t produce enough food to meet its needs. Suggest beefing up agricultural production and you’ll soon find that most Haitian peasant farmers don’t have enough land to produce a surplus. That means agrarian reform should be on the cards, but as one NGO country director told me, “This is a subject that is completely taboo.”

That’s why, for some, the idea of transforming CR3 into a humane housing complex is a fantasy. And it is also why my conversation last Tuesday, my final day in Haiti, with Camille Chalmers of the Platform for the Advocacy of Alternative Development felt refreshingly down-to-earth. We brought the discussion back to role of foreign aid in Haiti. And for Chalmers, its results have been “nettement negatif.”

“If you compare the growth of the volume of aid money with that of the country’s GDP,” he said, “you see very quickly that not only has it not made an important contribution to growth, but that it has had negative effects.”

In future posts, I will put up some interviews with many of the people I met there over the past two weeks. But something beyond those first impressions will definitely have to wait. After all, that is what research is all about.