Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Haiti is one of the unluckiest countries on earth. As I write this, a 250 kilometre-an-hour tropical storm is sweeping towards the country, forcing the evacuation of half a million people from the shanty-town camps they’ve been living in since losing their homes and 230,000 countrymen in January’s earthquake, and raising fears that floodwaters could spread the localised cholera epidemic affecting the north of the country to the camps and the capital. And that’s just 2010.
But Haiti’s woes cannot be put down merely to the slings and arrows of misfortune. The earthquake that killed 230,000 Haitians in January had a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale; Christchurch in New Zealand was hit by a tremor measuring 7.1 in September with no fatalities. It is poverty that turns natural disaster into humanitarian catastrophe – and poverty is created.
In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, many observers became concerned about the potential for a flourishing of one of the phenomena that create poverty: disaster capitalism. As described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, disaster capitalism is the exploitation of social vulnerabilities caused by ‘shocks’ such as wars, coups or natural disasters to impose neoliberal policies and projects that would otherwise be resisted.
Worried that the earthquake delivered just such an opportunity in a country that is no stranger to either colonial or neo-colonial exploitation, Adam Ramsay and I set up an online group, ‘No Shock Doctrine for Haiti’, to raise the issue with, we thought, a couple of dozen political friends. In a week, 20,000 people had joined. This was no niche concern.
The obvious prime suspect was the relief assistance itself. Plenty of donations were flowing into the country, but inevitably there were those who felt yet another loan would help teach Haiti the important lesson of fiscal responsibility.
By the time loans could be arranged, though, media outlets had taken up the warnings and the International Monetary Fund was operating under more scrutiny than it is accustomed to. Its response was to cancel all of Haiti’s outstanding IMF debt and issue a new low-interest credit facility to provide reserves and monetary policy levers. The loan came with no conditions and was designed expressly to allow Haiti to spend more freely, not less.
In addition, the Post-Catastrophe Debt Relief Fund, created to pay off Haiti’s outstanding debt, has been allowed to continue, and now stands as a pot of cash ready to offer similar relief to other indebted countries facing natural disasters.
So we can say with some confidence that some measurable good came out of the international expectation of shock doctrine tactics – and the scrutiny and campaigning that expectation bred. Forewarned was forearmed.
But inevitably the TV crews leave and the international gaze moves elsewhere. Events in Haiti since it was the focus of our attention have gone rather more as feared.
In May, Monsanto delivered a ‘donation’ of 60 tonnes of hybrid seed maize and vegetables to Haiti, promising 340 tons more during 2010. One doesn’t have to be too cynical to become suspicious whenever Monsanto claims altruistic intent. In this case, the biotech giant sought to further the cause of corporate-dependent, export-led agriculture in Haiti, at the expense of indigenous farming techniques and varieties.
Hybrid seed rarely produces a viable second generation, unlike Haiti’s native varieties. This means that once a farmer has planted a crop of hybrid, breaking the chain of harvesting and replanting his seed, he will have to carry on buying new seed stock every year. Many of the Monsanto products are also heavily dependent upon artificial inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides, all of which have to be purchased every year.
The varieties pushed by Monsanto and the like are few in number. They are designed to be consistent, not diverse. Farmers working without artificial inputs and sophisticated irrigation will normally plant a wide variety of seed – one drought-resistant, one flood-hardy; one that survives fungus, one not favoured by locusts. This means a crop is likely no matter what misfortune befalls the growing season. Monsanto monocultures leave farmers vulnerable.
Haitian farming techniques may not be as technologically sophisticated as those of richer countries, but Haitian farmers are not uneducated hicks. There is a developed peasant agronomy supported by local colleges and farmers’ organisations.
Locals know that their traditional crop varieties are dying out under the economic onslaught of the heavily-marketed corporate varieties that are demanded by American buyers. They know that this is disastrous in the long term for Haitian farming. But Monsanto was banking on the Haitians being so desperate as a result of the earthquake that they would plant anything.
Some rural groups did mobilise in protest at Monsanto’s Trojan horse, burning Monsanto seed in the square of the town of Hinche. The marchers’ declaration proclaimed: ‘We defend peasant agriculture, we defend food sovereignty, we defend the environment of Haiti until our last drop of blood.’ But seed was in short supply, as much of the previous year’s stores had been used to feed victims of the earthquake. So, for the most part, the gift was accepted, whether gratefully or not.
The Monsanto donation shows that, in the aftermath of a disaster, quite dramatic private corporate activities can evade the scrutiny attracted by international macroeconomic interventions such as an IMF plan. Indeed, they can even disguise themselves as part of the humanitarian response. And while popular political power might not totally have broken down, it is likely to be undermined by immediate physical need.
Effective public opposition has been even more muted in the face of the privatisation of Haiti’s monopoly telecommunications company Téléco. Sixty per cent of the wholly-state-owned firm was sold to Vietnamese company Viettel in a deal that was arranged prior to the earthquake but only completed afterwards.
The sale of Téléco illustrates just how cheaply assets are sold when catastrophic conditions leave countries with no ability to act in their own long-term interest, so grave are their short-term needs.
Even before the earthquake, Téléco had been losing money. Some of the most pro-privatisation reports put the loss at as much as $1 million per month. In order to remain viable without aggressively reducing staff, which the government was keen to avoid given Haiti’s 50 per cent plus unemployment, Téléco needed a capital injection to expand coverage and increase subscription numbers.
If that had been done, Téléco could have made money instead of losing it. So many people were without a fixed-line telephone that Haiti represented one of the few growth markets left in telecommunications. If Téléco could have expanded coverage while in government hands, it could have provided reinvestment capital to develop the country’s information infrastructure.
Instead, however, Téléco was sold at a very attractive price to a company bearing promises of rapid fibre-optic expansion – 5,000 kilometres in 12 months was claimed – in exchange for the lion’s share of profits and total control.
In infrastructure privatisations elsewhere – for example, water services in Tanzania and South Africa – we have seen that private coverage expansion is a phenomenon restricted to those neighbourhoods whose residents can afford to pay top prices for the service. A fibre-optic network from a private investor – if it succeeds at all – will not be used to deliver information empowerment and economic opportunities to the poor of Haiti but to the rich.
In addition, Téléco’s assets included authority over mobile phone bandwidth. While the company was effectively a government agency, it could regulate this in the public interest; indeed Téléco did not run its own mobile network but instead licensed the airwaves much as Britain’s Ofcom does. With its sale, both a very obviously public asset – the airwaves – and a regulatory function of government pass into private hands.
In this way, the fruits of economic development are denied to local people and spirited out of the country as dividends, whole functions of government are sold off, never to return to democratic control, and development strategy is reshaped to increase inequality, not constrain it.
The case of Haiti shows that though the world is no longer entirely naïve to the shock doctrine, it’s what remains after our attention wanders that causes the lasting hurt. It’s the corn shipment, or the phone privatisation. It’s the aftershocks.
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe