Welcome to OpEdNews, Antoine. I read something disturbing that you wrote recently about Haiti. Before we talk about your article, please tell our readers a bit about yourself.
I am French, a mining engineer by training and an auto engineer by profession. I have worked in controlling, production and R&D.In my younger years, I also minored in theology at the Protestant Institute of Theology in Paris. I made a few highly formative trips: to India, the Arab world and the USA. I have been involved for many years with Initiatives of Change (IofC), a non-governmental organization working for peace, reconciliation and human security worldwide.I have four European, multilingual children between 22 and 15 (their mother is Dutch).
One of my life passions is to contribute to change the world and make it sustainable for the next generations. It is now or never, I am afraid.
I'm afraid you're right, Antoine; it is now or never. Right now, you're zeroing in on Haiti, the earthquake and its aftermath. What would you like to add to the discussion of what's going on over there?
Obviously, there is a lot of relief work going on and I am sure timely decisions to help rebuild Haiti will be taken very soon by a group of rich nations. But, inevitably, emotion will subside and even if everything was rebuilt as it was before, Haitians will resume their very difficult life. Life expectancy and child mortality are miles away from the developed world - life expectancy is actually 2/3 of what it is in the USA or Europe and the odds to lose your child before he turns 5 are 1/7. Joblessness affects over2/3 of the population and 80% of Haitians live, or rather survive, below the poverty line.
It is the acute poverty of the country and the lack of decent infrastructure which made the earthquake so deadly. It is the causes of extreme poverty in Haiti which need tackling. If there was a very dangerous mountain road next to where we live and many accidents on this road, certainly we would not think only of improving emergency services or building a state-of-the-art hospital; we would also consider how to improve the road and invest to make it less dangerous.
What's your take on why Haiti is so incredibly poor, even without factoring in all the recent natural disasters?
The causes of poverty are multiple and often debated. The unlucky circumstances around Haiti's independence, in which the colonial power, France, played a major part, are certainly responsible for giving this nation a bad start, ranging from poor infrastructure, international isolation and a culture of violence. While remaining aware of this past, it is important to focus on what is going on today.
Trade is controlled by powerful nations, pretty much to their advantage; it is liberalism when it suits them - most of the time - and protectionism when they see fit - when competition from outside gets really challenging. Liberalism, or absolutely free trade, tends to exclude the weakest from the economic chessboard. While this may give good results on average to increase global riches, it doesn't allow the poorer to survive - the tragedy is that real people do die of poverty.
That is where our humanist values must take over and produce a more human way of organising the global economy - for instance, upon examination, absolutely free trade on any kind of agricultural product may not be a good idea after all. Another key point: where rich nations play foul is global finance. Specialists of the grey economy have now shown that the amount of money which flows from Rich to Poor inform of development aid is dwarfed by the amount of money which flows the other way, from Poor to Rich. Decisive action is needed there.
You make a lot of good points here, Antoine. What exactly is the grey economy?
As you probably have guessed, it is linked to the tax haven situation. Do you know that there are 60 states or jurisdictions worldwide which specialize in fiscal low profile and judiciary opacity? But tax havens are only a channel. The banks are the pump, competing to attract and recycle any free capital, including capital generated by criminal activities or corruption. We have all heard of Mobutu having bags of money directly delivered by the Central Bank to his private residence, or of Suharto digging deep into the cash drawers of charitable foundations, all of this recycled by our international banks.
This is tragic but anecdotal; the bulk of the grey economy is generated by highly respected international companies, which just deliberately misprice commodities in import-export operations, pay for the exchanged goods or services in a third country and channel money through shell companies into fiscal havens.
This is a standard business practice which leads to the profits being declared in jurisdictions where companies may well have no activity at all. The nice name for that is fiscal optimisation, the more honest one is... Let me take an extreme example: Gazprom, at the time of its founder, Viktor Chernomyrdine. They are known to have charged some of their natural gas at only 10% of its value to fully-owned subsidiaries abroad. Those then resold the gas to their customers at normal market price. 90% of the money, sometimes 100% when the bill was not paid, was diverted into secret accounts in tax havens, or, to put it in simpler terms, stolen from the Russian people.
That is, of course, deeply affecting the capacity of all poor countries Haiti among others- to develop their own economies. The top-down estimate given in 1998 by Michel Camdessus, then World Bank President, was: from 2 to 5% of the global economy, a thousand billion dollar, half of it coming from poor or emerging nations; for them, the impact is quite significant!
That's a huge number. And this sounds like one more example of the haves getting more and the have-nots paying for it. You recently wrote an article that John Graham of The Giraffe Heroes Project sent me. It takes this haves/have-nots frame in an unexpected direction. Would you care to tell our readers about this?
Indeed, I was struck by the news of the arrival of the luxury cruise vessel "Independence of the Seas" on the devastated northern shores of Haiti three days after the earthquake, at the very heart of this land tormented by hunger, violence and death.
The organisers, Royal Caribbean, have permanently rented idyllic beaches there for the rest and amusement of their thousands of customers. The beaches are, of course, a no-go zone for locals, who are kept at bay by barbed wire and heavily armed surveillance. It must be underlined that there is a positive economic fallout for the island, and Royal Caribbean will contribute to aid funds to the satisfaction of the UN representative in Haiti.For the tourists, who enjoy these idyllic premises while the country had been devastated by the earthquake, there was a matter of conscience and a dilemma:a good number have not disembarked in Haiti, while others have had no qualms.
Despite whatever economic benefits of this disaster tourism, it smacks of gawking or voyeurism. And it points to something inherently rotten about the way wealth is distributed around the world. But, how can a more equitable global redistribution take place? I can't imagine the rich nations voluntarily taking part.
When slave trade was being questioned by activists back in early 19th century Britain, many tried to prevent any change: conservatives who saw slavery as a natural order, politicians who were afraid it would favour the French who would then become the sole beneficiaries of the slave trade, representatives of harbour constituencies and the shipping industries who feared that it would ruin them"
Nobody volunteered back then, either. Change was made possible by the alliance of three elements: a highly dedicated group of activists with a clear view of what was needed, a powerful and persistent campaign to mobilize public opinion, a cunning and persistent action on decision-makers. It was a difficult battle against formidable adversaries as Amazing Grace, the 2006 film by Michael Apted, remarkably depicts.
The parallel between extreme poverty and slavery is not incidental. In both cases, victims are deprived of the legitimate product of their work and are not free to go where they want. What we need today is a change as deep as in the time of slavery. Campaigns to end poverty are an encouraging beginning but nationwide conscience awakenings and a change of heart are necessary components. That is a question we want to work on with other NGOs at our upcoming meeting on Leading Change For a Sustainable World in Caux, Switzerland.
This anecdote puts the scandal of extreme poverty under a crude light. Independently of any catastrophe, life expectancy in Haiti is a mere 53 years (against about 75 in developed countries) and the death rate of children under 5 is of 12.3% (against 0.5% in developed countries). Over 40,000 young children die every year in Haiti. Worldwide, 25,000 children aged between 0 and 5 die daily of causes which could easily be prevented: malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia are the main children killers [think of it as] one Haiti earthquake, every two or three days. The main ally of these killers is extreme poverty, a curse and a servitude plaguing Haiti and 20% of humankind.
To me, what the Royal Caribbean ships, and, indirectly, the January 12th quake, demonstrate is that urgent change is needed. The imbalance in riches repartition and the injustice reach such heights that the global stability is permanently threatened by conflicts and migrations. Rebuilding Haiti is a noble and imperative task. But rebuilding Haiti will not be enough. What is needed in this century is to end extreme poverty, to break the chains of economic servitude as the chains of slavery were broken two centuries ago.
Please report back after your meeting in Switzerland. Where can readers go to read the article that you wrote about Haiti? Anything you'd like to add, Antoine?
As a student, I spent two months doing development work in a south Indian city. If a family was to earn a living at all, women and children had to work for less than half the basic wage, often at a local match factory. Your heart sank when you saw school-age children spending 12 hours a day lining up scores of minute wooden sticks on rulers, soon to be piled up into a rack and earning a few cents for each complete rack. There were also very young children sitting next to their working mother and a few men in charge of dipping the racks in wax and sulphur in dark and hazardous workshops.
Economic development in India may now have improved the conditions there but we know that, at present, 1.4 billion of our human brothers and sisters still live in extreme poverty, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with absolutely no hope of ever improving their condition. Unaddressed, extreme poverty discredits all our talk about human values or human rights. It also discredits the liberal economic system. According to a 2006 study, 1% of the world population owns 40% of the wealth while the bottom 50% own 1%.
I hope that the Haiti catastrophe and the ensuing international solidarity will have opened the eyes of many citizens of our developed countries on poverty as my journey in India opened mine. We will need every good will available to fight this evil.
Your readers can read my article at http://www.iofc.org/node/46296 or http://www.johngrahamspeaker.org/a-picture-of-haiti-you-may-not-have-seen
Thank you so much for talking with me, Antoine. Good luck to you!