MCC update: Rebuiling Haiti for the future requires knowledge of its past

By Rebecca Bartel and Alexis Erkert Depp
Photo by Ben Depp

Locals view their collapsed homes in Nerettes, a neighborhood on the edge of Port-au-Prince, Haiti
—Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the relief organization of Brethren in Christ and Mennonite congregations, released this update from its office in Akron, Pa., on the situation in Haiti and the challenges faced by the country:

As the world rallies in response to the catastrophic earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, in Haiti, the global Christian family is invited to consider the place of God’s shalom, God’s peace, in the rebuilding of Haitian lives and infrastructure.

MCC is doing just that, as we provide immediate emergency support, but also plan for medium- and long-term efforts.

To understand the strategies needed for Haiti’s construction, it is appropriate to consider the obstacles this country has experienced. Natural disasters are beyond our human control, but the vulnerability of Haiti to their horrific consequences is human-made. There is nothing natural about poverty, hunger and political unrest.

Poverty. Beginning with the exorbitant debt of 150 million francs (the equivalent of $21 billion U.S. today) forced on the population after independence from France in 1804, to more recent structural adjustment policies and conditions on foreign aid, Haiti has been under the heel of external economic policies that exacerbate and systematize poverty.

Until June 2009, Haiti was paying $56 million to $70 million a year to service debts to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Close to 45 percent of that debt was incurred during the U.S.-backed Duvalier dictatorships (1957-1986). Until the forgiveness of $1.2 billion of Haiti’s foreign debt by the IMF and the World Bank last year, the government spent $4 per person on health care and $5 per person on education each year, while paying $5 per person in debt service.

Hunger. Until 1985, Haiti was self-sufficient in rice production – a staple in the modern Haitian diet. Under the tutelage of international financing institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF, Haiti liberalized its economic policies, opening the door to foreign exports, such as rice.

In 1994 conditions on foreign aid to the country and the reinstatement of ousted President Bertrand Aristide by the U.S. chiseled Haiti’s import tariffs on rice from 35 to 3 percent, the lowest in the region. Because of U.S.-subsidized rice entering the country at half the price of locally produced rice, and because these aid conditions prohibited the Haitian government from subsidizing local production, thousands of rice farmers were put out of business. Many were displaced to urban centers such as Port-au-Prince, where weak infrastructure and the lack of jobs forced millions of people to live in shanty towns and poorly constructed housing.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, now U.N. special envoy to Haiti, publicly apologized on March 10 for championing these policies. Quoted in The New York Times, Clinton said, “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.”

Dependence on foreign food imports magnifies misery in times of crisis.

Political unrest. Haiti has a history of foreign military intervention. This usurping of national authority has weakened state institutions and civil society.

While the foreign troop presence in Haiti is decreasing from the early days following the earthquake, there is still confusion about its mandate. MCC’s Haitian partners say they want military personnel to refrain from carrying assault rifles in public, and for Canadian and U.S. troops to clearly articulate their mission within the framework of the United Nations Mission in Haiti.

Principles that guide MCC’s response. God’s vision of shalom in Haiti calls the Christian family to consider the long-term investment that must be made for Haiti to rise out of the crisis it faced even before the earthquake of Jan. 12. In response to this call, MCC has developed internal principles to guide its part in the work.

These include emphasis on local and sustainable development, Haitian-led decision making about development and investment priorities, demilitarization of aid efforts, and immigration policy that respects the Haitian Diaspora and dignifies the migration process.

It calls us to respond immediately, but also to consider how our governments and institutions make policy decisions that victimize the world’s marginalized people.

It calls us to witness to policymakers, faithfully sharing God’s vision for justice, peace and dignity for all people, and encouraging policy decisions that bring life, not death, to our brothers and sisters around the world.

As relief efforts continue, more opportunities will arise to work for human dignity in Haiti. We cannot control the movements of the earth, but we can control how our voice is heard in government.

For more than 30 years, the WHF, partnering with sister BIC Conferences and MCC, has provided a way for BIC churches and individuals in Canada and the U.S. to offer relief assistance (e.g., food rations, flood recovery, school supplies, and housing) to their global neighbors.

In the U.S.: Donations can be made online by selecting “World Hunger Fund.” Additionally, you can mail a check to the Brethren in Christ Church Offices at 431 Grantham Rd, PO Box A, Grantham, PA 17027. When giving by check, please make it out to “General Conference of the Brethren in Christ, Inc.,” and use the memo line to designate “World Hunger Fund” and the specific projects (if any) you’d like the gifts applied to.

In Canada: Donations can be made online by selecting “World Hunger Fund.” However, donors will not be eligible to receive tax credit for any gifts given to the BIC Church online. Cheques should be made out to the “Canadian Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church ” and sent directly to the Canadian Conference of the BIC Church: 2700 Bristol Circle, Oakville, ON L6H 6E1. Use the memo line to designate “World Hunger Fund,” as well as the specific projects (if any) you’d like the gifts applied to.

Visit the BIC World Hunger Fund online for more information about the organization or how its contributions are distributed.