By Ilio Durandis
Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, wrote that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These words were written in the context that one could not just sit by idly and ignore injustice taking place nearby.
Today, it is more than evident that injustice is the national currency of Haiti. Like King, it is not acceptable to continue to expect that things will change, if we just wait for the right moment. The wait for change is 208 years old. The time has definitely come to seriously question and make the people at the top aware of the discontent and discomfort of those at the bottom related to the country’s direction in the reconstruction era.
The Caracol project amounts to doing the wrong thing for the right reason. It is comparable to someone robbing a bank to feed their family. Job creation is a noble endeavour, but to do it at the expense of agricultural and ecological land is an injustice. There is no justification that can explain the redistribution of peasants and farmers’ land for low-paying factory jobs. For the sake of sanity, this move is hyper-insane.
The symbolic representation of this project does not signal that Haiti is “building back better.” On the contrary, it brings back the memories of the death of Haiti’s rice cultivation and the Creole Pig Disaster that took place in the early 1980s — a massacre that many now look upon as the beginning of the end of Haitians’ ability to be self-sustaining as far as food production is concerned.
A foreign company with no previous ties to Haiti or its people, in a very secretive and selective process, was able to have a facility built for them on public land, and with foreign government agencies’ financial support.
It is unfortunate that the industrial park at Caracol, with a vision to create a few thousand non-livable jobs, is the crown jewel of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
Haiti’s development cannot be pinned on the false promises that low-paying jobs can lead to sustainable development. In fact, the Caracol project has the potential to yet again create a new shanty-town, just as Cite Soleil was the result of a similar experiment in the 1980s.
The configuration of today’s world does not give Haiti a competitive advantage in attracting those low-paying jobs for its people. As matter of fact, those jobs will do nothing more than to continue to reinforce the status of poverty and misery that have been synonymous with Haiti.
In order for Haiti to fully turn the corner, the money donated to Sae-A to come to Haiti could have been invested elsewhere, and in jobs that not only would pay livable wages, but that would lay the basic foundations of sustainability.
A perfect example would be to invest that money in a national infrastructure project, whether it would be canalization of the major cities or construction of modern schools, teachers’ training programes or, better yet, agriculture.
Indeed, those areas have benefited from international aid money, but more often than not, the money comes in small installments. And it is never enough money to really undertake a massive national project all at once. There is no doubt that $302 million dollars, if invested at once in one of the aforementioned areas, could give better results than Sae-A over the same time frame.
Haiti needs jobs that can serve the demands of its population. For example, a company like Digicel is successful in Haiti, because, first and foremost, it meets an immediate demand of the Haitian population.
Digicel turned a luxurious item, a cellular phone, and made it into a common household item for anyone who wants one. In the process, it created many decent-paying jobs, and also indirectly rendered it easier for all types of business people to run their enterprises using a cellular phone.
On the other end, a company like Sae-A addresses no demand of the Haitian population. It is using a pretext that it will create jobs, but it is clear that with wages at $5 a day, these jobs are not only unlivable, but they are plainly exploitative. In such a system, we cannot talk of a competitive advantage.
Just like the textile factories in Port-au-Prince, which use Haiti’s cheap labour market and yet do not produce anything for Haitian consumers, Sae-A is all about following that same model.
The big winners from the Caracol project will be Sae-A, the IDB, which has successfully managed to intertwine grants and loans, USAID, and, of course a select few Haitians. The Haitian people will be the big losers: more specifically, the peasants and farmers who used to make their living on the land.
The odds are against the factory workers who take these non-livable-wage jobs to ever rise up from abject poverty to decent living conditions.
Haiti can no longer afford a perpetual reconstruction of misery and inhuman living conditions, but in order to break from this vicious cycle, Haitian authorities and the population must speak up and act against the imported social injustice policies that are set to undermine the sustainable transformation of the country.
Ilio Durandis, a Caribbean Journal contributor, is the founder of Haiti 2015, a social movement for a just and prosperous Haiti. He is also a columnist with The Haitian Times.