Haiti's new PM and the power of NGOs

by Nikolas Barry-Shaw

Haiti Information Project (HIP) - Coming to office in the midst of a hurricane-provoked humanitarian crisis, Haiti's new Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis clearly has her work cut out for her. Paradoxically, one of the biggest obstacles her administration will face is the blight of foreign-funded NGOs eagerly trying to "help" Haiti. The new Prime Minister acknowledged as much recently, stating that "the channelling of hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid through NGOs poses serious problems for the country," according to the Agence Haitienne de Presse.

Over the past decade, a tidal wave of NGOs have come to blanket Haiti. According to the World Bank, there are today over 10,000 NGOs working in Haiti, the highest per-capita concentration in the world. These organizations occupy every possible sector of activity, their budgets sometimes dwarfing those of their governmental counterparts.

Agriculture provides a telling example, as Nazaire St. Fort reports: "[M]ore than 800 NGOs work parallel with the agriculture ministry, but most define their own priorities." The Association National des Agro-professionnels Haïtiens (ANDAH) explains that of the "3.4 billion gourdes (91 million dollars) budgeted for public investment in 2006-2007, 3.2 billion (85 million dollars) are managed by NGOs."

Ironically, Michele Pierre-Louis made her career participating in the long ascendance to power of the NGOs in Haiti. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Pierre-Louis headed FOKAL, the Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète in Creole, the Fondation Connaissance & Liberté in French, a foundation created in 1995 by billionaire George Soros' Open Society Institute (OSI). In a report on FOKAL, OSI President Aryeh Neier points out: "The Open Society Institute founded FOKAL that year to take advantage of the transition to strengthen democracy and open society values and practices." With an annual budget of over $4 million (US), FOKAL was widely know as one of the most influential NGOs in Haiti.

All would not go according to OSI's plan; "[T]he second coming of Aristide proved a disaster. He was more concerned with retaining power than enacting reforms." That is to say that Aristide was concerned with recovering the 3 years of his mandate lost to the 1991-1994 Cedras dictatorship and resisting the neoliberal demands made by the Americans and the rest of the "donor" countries. In the following years, foreign funded NGOs such as FOKAL would be mobilized against such outrageous violations of democratic norms.

FOKAL's primary focus is a library program, along with educational and cultural activities, serving Port-au-Prince's upper and middle-class students. "Some of them go on to attend university in Haiti, to study law, medicine, education, agriculture, and computer science. Many leave the country for the United States and Canada. In 2002, Canadian computer companies recruited some 20,000 Haitian young people with the lure of permanent visas."

FOKAL also operates a program in Martissant, a peripheral slum of Port-au-Prince, as well as giving "general support to peasants’ associations, community radio stations, human rights organizations, women’s groups, and other non-governmental organizations."

The founding of FOKAL was but one instance in the creation of the NGO nexus by the "international community" (read: the imperialist countries) in Haiti. The NGO nexus aims to succeed where repressive force has failed, "killing with kindness" in an attempt to suffocate the vibrant grassroots activity that overthrew the Duvalier dictatorship and brought the Lavalas movement to power. As one Haitian peasant told anthropologist Jennie M. Smith, "They call it development, but it is more like envelopment!"

This is hardly an overstatement. The tremendous resources disposed of by these organization cannot but have a massive impact on the political scene, operating as they are amidst such extreme deprivation. If you want to get your daily bread, why bother building a powerful socio-political movement to press your demands on an impotent state? Why become involved in a democratic process increasingly hollowed-out by neoliberal reforms?

This approach has met with some success. As Stan Goff notes, "a number of the formerly militant popular organizations, like Tet Kole and the MPP (Papay Peasant’s Movement) have been slowly co-opted by the steady trickle of project dollars flowing through the almost interminable list of NGOs infesting every corner of Haiti." However, the continuing strength of the Lavalas movement has demonstrated that Haiti's popular classes are not so easily coopted.

Yet the same cannot be said of those recruited by the NGOs to act as their local administrators. Who are the administrators? They are people like Pierre-Louis who, "as a member of the affluent, educated elite, could have left Haiti, but . . . stayed to work for the improvement of [their] country." Pierre-Louis's trajectory is emblematic of the journey taken by large segments of Haiti's educated classes across the political spectrum.

Like virtually all of Aristide's elite "left" critics, Pierre-Louis was at one time a close ally of the popular movement, radicalized in the course of the struggle against the Duvalier regime. And like many such critics, her split with Lavalas came when the expected spoils of power did not come her way. As Kim Ives notes, "Pierre-Louis was previously considered for the post of Prime Minister by President Aristide in 1993, although he chose instead publisher Robert Malval."

The disappointment of the middle classes' exaggerated revolutionary expectations by Aristide and the Lavalas project - whose reformist goals nonetheless threatened the established order - likely also played a role. Illuminating in this regard is Corey Robin's discussion of "the inevitable deceleration and disillusionment that consume failed movements of reform" noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in "one of his lesser-known writings on the French Revolution":

"After every great defeat comes a great despair. Comrade accuses comrade of treachery or cowardice, soldiers denounce generals for marching them toward folly and everyone is soon seized by what Tocqueville described as the 'contempt' that broken revolutionaries 'acquire for the very convictions and passions' that moved them in the first place. Forced to abandon the cause for which they gave up so much, failed rebels 'turn against themselves and consider their hopes as having been childish - their enthusiasm and, above all, their devotion absurd.' "

At the same time, the waning desire for transformative social change competed with other, more particularistic interests for the heart of the middle class. As Robert Fatton Jr. explains: "In a country where destitution is the norm and private avenues to wealth are rare, politics becomes an entrepreneurial vocation, virtually the sole means of material and social advancement for those not born into wealth and prestige.” Ironically, the political representatives of the middle class ultimately did the most to advance the neoliberal compromises forced on Aristide.

These sectors subsequently turned to Soros and other generous funders of "civil society" from the North, who were busy creating a multiplicity of parallel state-like structures and looking for competent - and politically reliable - bureaucrats. By offering better pay and conditions than Haiti's governement ever could to give to its civil servants, the building up of these "states-within-a-state" simultaneously led to the degrading of Haiti's state apparatus.

Perversely, this process played no small part in the ascent to power of Pierre-Louis. A glowing article on Alterpresse (a CIDA-funded news website), for instance, cites her experience managing NGO projects across the country as qualifying her for the post of Prime Minister.

The dovetailing of class interests and political rivalries is typical of how "democracy promotion" interventions exert their power: "It is important to emphasize that many individuals brought into US 'democracy promotion' programs are not simple puppets of US policy and their organizations are not necessarily 'fronts' (or in CIA jargon, 'cut-outs'). Very often they involve genuine local leaders seeking to further their own interests and projects in the context of internal political competition and conflict and of heavy US influence over the local scene." (William I. Robinson)

Administrators such as Pierre-Louis fulfilled the function of gatekeepers in choosing which popular organizations to support and are quite aware of the role they played for the donors. "FOKAL vouches for the organizations it works with. 'If the money is channeled through us, we will monitor and account for the funds, and issue reports on the progress being made,' [said Pierre-Louis.]" There is more than proper accounting at play here.

The OSI report gives us an idea of what "progress" means for FOKAL and its carefully selected partners. As early as 2000, a peasant group supported by FOKAL was organizing "a community meeting at which people vowed not to vote as a protest against the earlier fraudulent parliamentary elections." The OAS declared the elections "free and fair" and noted that Haitians "voted in large numbers in an atmosphere of relative calm and absence of intimidation." Yet since the hands-down winner of the election, Aristide's Famni Lavalas party, was seeking to undo some of the damage years of neoliberalism had done to Haiti, for the OSI and other donors wishing to uphold "open society values", the results were clearly "fraudulent".

Creating the justifications for the February 29, 2004 coup d'État was an essential role of groups like FOKAL. As Kim Ives writes: "Pierre-Louis became alienated from Aristide and his Lavalas Family party in recent years. In league with the bourgeoisie's 'civil' opposition front Group of 184, FOKAL played a small but visible role in late 2003 and early 2004 in characterizing the Constitutional government as repressive and intimidating." Pierre-Louis would denounce the Aristide "government's hostility to higher education and to basic human rights, including the right to demonstrate peacefully" following a Dec. 5, 2003 skirmish between college students and pro-government popular organizations at the State University. Pierre-Louis was also one of the signatories of a petition in 2004 decrying the bicentenial celebrations as a "search for an impossible legitimacy" by the Lavalas government.

It is also worth noting how tightly-knit the NGO nexus is, even across nominal "right-left" divisions. Hence, we find on the board of directors of FOKAL none other than Danièle Magloire, formerly of the women's coalition CONAP and now director of Rights and Democracy's Haiti office. The board of FOKAL's fund-raising branch in the US features a certain Alice G. Blanchet, listed as Director of Development for Advocacy with the Boulos family-funded Haiti Democracy Project. Pierre-Louis was also director of the Institut Culturel Karl Levesque (ICKL), a member organization of PAPDA.

The growth of NGOs and the atrophying of the Haitian state are in reality two sides of the same coin; the role of government is reduced to implementing neoliberal policies favorable to foreign capital while managing the haze of NGOs that effectively run the country, with the UN occupation in the background, ready to dish out the necessary repression. Michele Pierre-Louis, well-attuned to "open society value$", makes a perfect candidate for the job.

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