Unnatural Disasters

Fault Linesby Beverly Bell

Cornell University Press. 256p $18.95

“Change will come when the people are engaged right at the heart of things,” said Josette Pérard, a grass-roots activist in Haiti. She spoke as that country struggled to rebuild after the disastrous earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, that killed over 200,000 Haitians and destroyed the homes of many others. In Fault Lines, Beverly Bell describes the work of Pérard and other Haitian activists as they responded to the devastation of the quake. She criticizes international groups for failing to involve grass-roots Haitians in plans to rebuild their country. She offers useful suggestions for policy change.

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Although her home base is New Orleans, Bell has been involved in Haiti for many years as an activist and writer. She lived there decades ago, “running a grammar school, literacy program, and shade-tree clinic,” and has many friends there. She leads a group called Other Worlds (otherworldsarepossible.org), which reports on grass-roots action in Haiti and elsewhere. She holds to the old movement slogan, “Nothing about us without us.” With many stories and quotations, she shows how Haitian activists live that slogan as they work for homes for the homeless, fair pay for workers, food for the hungry, medical care and an end to violence against women.

Ironically, three post-quake international donors’ forums were not held in Haiti—where donors could have seen the problems first-hand and talked to those most affected—but in Montreal, Santo Domingo and New York. A United Nations consultant on Haiti told Bell that he made $30,000 per month. For a time after the quake, Bell says, many U.N. staff stayed “in a luxury cruise ship” in the harbor of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, at a reported cost to the ship of $112,500 per day.

At the same time, and for a long time afterward, Bell was seeing terrible conditions in the outdoor camps where huge numbers of Haitians lived because the quake had demolished their homes. They had to improvise shelter from sticks, scraps of plastic and cardboard. All-night noise made sleep impossible for many. Sanitation conditions ranged from poor to horrific, resulting in much sickness. Rape was so widespread that one mother “kept a machete under her blanket for fear that someone might pounce on her 18-year-old girl as they slept in an open-air lean-to.”

What if all international-aid staff had spent two nights in a Haitian camp soon after the earthquake? I suspect that they would have 1) radically improved sanitation and safety and 2) sped construction of replacement housing. In disaster relief, Bell stresses, a huge portion of the aid money goes to corporations in the donor countries, rather than to business in the country that needs help. She quotes excellent advice from Robert Naiman of the organization Just Foreign Policy: “If your aid dollar is used to purchase supplies produced in Haiti, it’s doing double duty. And if it’s being used to directly employ Haitians, it’s doing triple duty. Push your aid dollar as close to the ground as you can.” Haiti’s unemployment rate, estimated at 40 percent, gives added weight to Mr. Naiman’s advice.

Before the earthquake struck Haiti, economic globalization already had given that country a man-made disaster. The International Monetary Fund had pressured Haiti to reduce tariffs on rice and other crops, which leads to a “flood of cheap food from other countries.” As one farmer said, “Since foreign rice has invaded Haiti, we plant our rice but we can’t sell it.” The United States and other nations sent a huge amount of rice to Haiti as relief aid after the earthquake. A better alternative, Bell suggests, would have been using aid dollars to buy rice from Haitian farmers—and importing rice only when domestic supply couldn’t meet the need.

Globalization also has produced many garment sweatshops in the “free trade zones” of Haiti. Bell, who has interviewed many workers there over the years, reports that their wages are extremely low, working conditions are terrible and factory managers fire workers who try to organize unions. Explaining how they keep going despite all of this, workers use a Creole phrase that means “on the strength of my courage.” Bell suggests that outsiders can help them by boycotting corporations that exploit Haitians and by working for “enforceable labor rights and living wages” in trade agreements.

The author weaves together policy issues and lively descriptions of how they affect everyday life. She clearly loves the people of Haiti and admires their spirit. Many of them say, “We are bamboo; we bend but we don’t break.” One woman declared, “I’ll be engaged till the day I die. And even if we don’t see the changes, our kids will.” When people say goodbye, they also tell each other: “Hold strong.”

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