Rebuilding Haiti is a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. For a few days this summer, I got to be one of many American do-gooders who dropped into a disaster zone and, armed with pickaxes and shovels, zealously cleared rubble from the remants of collapsed buildings.
Occasionally locals have been inspired to join volunteers working on these sites, and then gotten confused upon learning that the work is unpaid. And so we accidentally stumble on the central dilemma of international assistance. “Solidarity, not charity” is a great slogan, but there isn’t a clear blueprint for outsiders seeking to aid Haiti’s recovery while fully respecting the sovereignty of its people.
As civil society groups try to figure out where they fit into Haiti’s quest for “sustainable development,” movements for peasants’ and workers’ rights are emerging as a counterweight to the international aid agencies often associated with oppressive neo-imperialism.
Though Haiti doesn’t really have a functioning formal economy, much less a robust labor movement, international unions have launched well-organized campaigns for “decent work” and protection of human rights in the reconstruction process.
In April, a conference of international trade unions sketched out a “roadmap” for reconstruction that demanded not only basic minimum wage and labor standards, but also the promotion of equity for women and farmers in the workforce and the establishment of good governance.” The teachers’ organization Education International, National Nurses United, and the AFL-CIO-affiliated Solidarity Center have all launched relief campaigns that that promote partnership with fellow Haitian workers.
But solidarity, while politically gratifying, doesn’t do much to improve the lot of Haitians still living in mud-caked tents six months on. Or could it? A balanced rebuilding effort would channel solidarity into resources that can be deployed directly by activists on the ground. The ingredients of an equitable recovery are quite obvious to Loulou Chery, a leader of one of Haiti’s main labor federation Confederation of Haitian Workers (CTH). In an interview published by the International Trade Union Confederation, Chery said:
To be honest, you can’t really talk about employment. Everything has been destroyed. In terms of creating jobs, it’s important to recognise that the situation was urgent even before the disaster. A job was already a luxury. Only 250,000 of five million workers were in employment.
The Ministerial Palace, which employed thousands of workers, has collapsed. We can only rebuild our future through reconstruction and creating jobs. The [National Institute for Social Training] can play a central role by launching immediate vocational training programmes so that workers, both men and women, can get back into the labour market and contribute to the reconstruction. But it needs to be able to operate under decent conditions and ensure it has the capacity to organise training.
For now, Haiti’s labor movement, which had been fractured by political and economic turmoil prior to the disaster, is sadly hobbled. But civil society in Haiti is surprisingly robust, thanks to a vast network of grassroots NGOs who have the know-how, community connections and resilience that aid moguls like the Red Cross utterly lack.
In the chaotic weeks following the quake, activist and scholar Mark Schuller observed that to assess local needs, small indigenous aid groups conducted ad-hoc surveys of their communities. So these programs “rely on trust, long-term relationships, and local decision-making, a far cry from the $1,000-per day experts and 20-something NGO middle management flown in to run the aid distribution.”
To coordinate Haiti’s lattice of tiny organizations, the Haiti Response Coalition has brought together various allied groups, including the environmental NGO Konpay, the community-development group Bagay Dwol Haiti Relief Fund, and the reform-oriented Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.
Even the U.S.-based organization that I worked with, Hands On Disaster Response, does its best to leave a sustainable footprint in Haiti. Its current operations in Leogane, centered on basic demolition and construction work, were designed as a temporary relief project. But by engaging local Haitians as staff and volunteers, the organization hopes to impart skills and international experience to community members, who can advance the rebuilding process after the international volunteers pull out.
Any transnational aid campaign should be conscious of Haiti’s rocky history with foreign assistance, from the U.N. occupation to suspicious Monsanto seed donations. Today, redevelopment funds are to be filtered through the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which is focused on promoting export-heavy private-sector development, threatening a regression to past neoliberal policies.
James Jordan with the Alliance for Global Justice, who recently wrote on Haiti’s labor activism in NarcoNews, told In These Times that the best assistance outside groups could offer may be simply to push their governments to honor the political and economic autonomy of Haiti.
Certainly people are desperate for jobs, so any kind of job is probably going to be perceived as positive development in short run. But in long run, it seems to me that all of the development continues to be aimed at creating long-lasting dependency, and subjugating and subverting the democratic will of the people.
Will this tiny revolutionary republic become a petri dish for neocolonial exploitation or a seedbed of grassroots innovation? Rescuing Haiti is tricky business. Foreign volunteers can clear the rubble, international labor advocates can declare solidarity. But building justice out of the ruins is one job that only the people of Haiti are uniquely qualified to do.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.