After reading Deborah Sontag’s massive New York Times article about the Clinton-brokered South Korean industrial park in northern Haiti, it took me some time to come up with the appropriate reaction. The article reads like a pump-‘em-up speech for opening night of the Left Forum. Nothing against the annual conclave of leftists; I’d be equally wary if the article tacked the other extreme towards CPAC’s party line.
The Times story is the standard Left pitch of global capitalists teaming up with self-serving governments to exploit the little people. It’s a perfect rendition, actually. Too perfect (as is this rebuttal). But it seems Sontag was more interested in maintaining the Left’s narrative than in fairly reporting on the Caracol project.
The most damning evidence is the article’s premise that funneling reconstruction money away from the quake’s damage zones is a bad, crazy, new or inappropriate idea. Decentralization is the key plank of any economic development plan for Haiti. Plenty of diaspora and foreign allies question how the government and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are depopulating the capital but until this Times article I’d rarely if ever heard anyone question that it needs to happen. After making such an audacious
statement suggestion without explaining why Port-au-Prince was the better option for the industrial park or for putting those funds to better use, I tuned this article out because already it didn’t make sense.
Nothing in it–except that tidbit about U.S. Treasury abstaining from the project vote–would surprise anyone familiar with how economic development happens in any space occupied by unorganized poor people with few allies and fewer options. Environmental concerns: ignored. Labor rights: swatted away from the planning table like a fly. The little people: pushed around like pawns in a global chess game over which they have zero influence. It happens all the time. But innovation does, too–and that’s the conversation we need to have more of.
One of my favorite and most inspiring memories from my time in Haiti is of a man nailing an old rubber slipper to the wall of his house. At least that’s what it first looked like. What he had done was turn the rubber slipper into a door hinge. At the moment I was passing by, he was joining the last slipper to the door and the wall. I suppose someone else watching that man pound away might bemoan the fact that he didn’t have an iron hinge from Home Depot or that the walls of his home were a quilt of rusty corrugated tin, cardboard and blue and white tarp. But my first instinct was to marvel. Lordie, look at that, I thought. Human beings always find a way. I took a picture to remind me of that life lesson.
I’m not stuck on diasporas because I’m a member of one or out of some romantic political idealism. I’m stuck on them because they’re sources of capital and the only group besides native dwellers who’re interested in long-term sustainability. I wonder why development banks don’t use that. How, for example, could diaspora capital support projects that mitigate the nastier aspects of exploitative manufacturing zones–whether in healthcare, schooling, training, or environmental protection? The only public-private partnership to be had is not between the Haitian government and U.S. taxpayers; it’s potentially with the Haitian diaspora as well.
I’m very interested in the ways that different diasporas have come together to develop their sending countries. Where is diaspora capital having a collective impact on entire communities or regions–not just their own families? Where is diaspora capital helping to attract foreign direct investment or mitigating the negative effects? Just because the media doesn’t cover these examples doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It reminds me of Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s admonition that the stories we tell ourselves–or, in this case, that we allow media to tell about us–not only construct our worlds; they construct our possibilities, too.
PS: check Nathan Yaffe’s December 2011 write-up for a macro explanation of why Caracol is such a high-risk investment–and what alternatives could be.
Update: After a Twitter exchange with Jonathan Katz, I struck ‘statement’ because the NYT piece doesn’t explicitly state opposition to decentralization. My fault for using the wrong word but my reading of the article’s frame remains.