Haiti: Three centuries of colonialism

A month on from the Haitian earthquake and the images of mothers and young children trying to rebuild their lives after the devastation is upsetting for all. Although such disasters cannot be prevented, the post earthquake events in the country reveal some startling facts about Haiti. Firstly, the tiny state is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere and has development indicators comparable to some of the poorest African states. In terms of illiteracy and mortality, it is on par with countries such as Bangladesh, Chad and Sierra Leone. Such characteristics are quite unsettling, especially as it is only 600 miles from the United States.

The reasons for Haiti’s poor development record are still being debated by historians and political scientists but a brief glance into her history offers some insights. When Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti on 5th December, 1492, he claimed the island for Spain -subsequently, the Spaniards mined the island for gold and exploitation of the land. At a later stage, the French settled on the land which gave rise to hostilities and tension with the Spaniards because both countries wanted to colonize the island.

When Haitians won their independence from France in 1804, they attempted to claim reparations from the powers that had profited from three centuries of colonisation. France, however, was convinced that it was Haitians who had stolen the property of slave owners, by refusing to work for free. So in 1825, French warships threatened to re-enslave the former colony, King Charles X came to collect 90 million gold francs – 10 times Haiti’s annual revenue at the time. With no way to refuse, and no way to pay, the young nation was shackled to a debt that would take 122 years to pay off.

The ill-treatment suffered by the host population included malnutrition, forced labour and slavery – such enormous societal disruptions led to a sharp decline in population and this was further exacerbated by infectious diseases bought by the Europeans that were new to the people of the Caribbean, therefore lacked immunity to. The newly formed colonized lands quickly became very profitable, especially for the French as they gained immense profits from sugar and coffee. This was made possible by the thousands of slaves that were shipped from Africa to work on the land – it is said that they were part of the ‘most brutally efficient slave colonies’ as one third died within a few years.

It is clear from this brief account that international powers have always vied with each other in competition to secure resources and strategic interests. The only difference now is the style employed to achieve the same objective. Unfortunately, for the people of Haiti, the earthquake was the perfect pretext for the Capitalists to set foot in the impoverished nation once again. Of particular interest is the fact that Haiti has the highest number of NGOs per capita in the world. On the surface, such a realisation may not seem to be vested in exploitation or self-interest and although, it is not necessarily a bad thing that a state has so many NGOs but the ramifications of such a reality can be disconcerting. As a general rule of thumb, the more NGOs there are in a country, the less developed it is. This can suggest one of two factors. A heavy NGO presence in a country may indicate that the state has abdicated its responsibility to its citizens or that it doesn’t have the infrastructure to adequately respond to the people’s needs.

One would then beg the question: if there are so many NGOs in Haiti than anywhere else, why has the country not been able to pull itself out of the quagmire of underdevelopment and poverty? Could it be related to the fact that such a large presence of NGOs has the effect of downplaying the duties of government by not advocating the need for development? Essentially, such a situation means that the country will always rely on foreign hand-outs and will never be self-sufficient.

It is a historical fact that any country that opens its doors to foreign donors and humanitarian agencies eventually loses sovereignty over its own people. Similar scenarios can be seen in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, much of the money raised will end up in the pockets of highly-paid consultants, corrupt government officials and UN bureaucrats; very little of it will go to the people who need it most.

It may appear that the premise of this discussion is questioning the morality of NGOs and it may seem cruel to suggest that donors and NGOs should not help countries like Haiti at the time of need but the history of humanitarian aid and assistance to poor countries has shown that a crisis is used as a convenient entry point by foreign players to impose a particular system or vision for the people. On the other hand, it is true to state that a blanket rejection of NGOs is rather unfair but a healthy critique of such practices would warrant suspicion, especially as their operations are conducted within the framework of capitalist thought, an ideology that is marching forth towards global domination. As for the Haitian government, they will be pushed further to the periphery and most decisions about the state will be made in Washington, Paris or London – a type of proxy colonialism as it were.

Ultimately, giving charity and assistance to the poor and grief stricken is a commendable act and should be encouraged, however, they should be viewed as pseudo-solutions. More often than not, the underlying fundamental problem is overlooked and with the case of Haiti, it is an example of centuries of subjugation and interference by outside powerful forces. Very little attention is given to how Haiti can develop its infrastructure and mode of government or how IMF loans are becoming increasingly oppressive.

Although, we do not see the barbaric slavery of the French anymore, the essence of Colonialist politics has not shifted. It is no longer a case of brute force neo-colonialism but we now live in the times of subtle NGO colonialism – an idea that hinders self development and increases reliance on others.