Earthquakes in Japan and Haiti have raised many troubling issues of democratic accountability and structural disadvantage. Writing in the Boston Review, novelist Junot Diaz offers a compelling perspective on the Haiti situation, still desperate over a year after the shock. As he reminds us, “Haiti is by nearly every metric one of the poorest nations on the planet—a mind-blowing 80 percent of the population live in poverty . . . two-thirds of the workforce have no regular employment, and, for those who do have jobs, wages hover around two dollars a day.” Things were terrible before the earthquake, and there is no dream of dramatic improvement after, even if the remaining 2/3 of the money pledged to Haiti actually finds its way there.
In the wake of such a disaster, it’s easy to think of the earthquake itself as the main cause of misery. Or perhaps some natural economic equilibrium led Haiti to be so vulnerably impoverished. But Diaz explores the history of the place, and the many ways that political decisions forced its people into ever more marginal positions on the global stage. As he did for the Dominican Republic in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (called the novel of the decade by New York Magazine), Diaz confronts in Haiti the many interventions of the developed world that contributed to (and perhaps determined) the situation today. It is a long list, but worth recounting in full:
Whether it was Haiti’s early history as a French colony;. . . whether it was Haiti’s status as the first and only nation in the world to overthrow Western chattel slavery, for which it was blockaded (read, further impoverished) by Western powers (thank you Thomas Jefferson) and only really allowed to rejoin the world community by paying an indemnity to all whites who had lost their shirts due to the Haitian revolution, an indemnity Haiti had to borrow from French banks in order to pay, which locked the country in a cycle of debt that it never broke free from; whether it was that chronic indebtedness that left Haiti vulnerable to foreign capitalist interventions—first the French, then the Germans, and finally the Americans, who occupied the nation from 1915 until 1934, installing a puppet president and imposing upon poor Haiti a new constitution more favorable to foreign investment;
whether it was the 40 percent of Haiti’s income that U.S. officials siphoned away to repay French and U.S. debtors, or the string of diabolical despots who further drove Haiti into ruin and who often ruled with foreign assistance—for example, FranÇois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who received U.S. support for his anti-communist policies; whether it was the 1994 UN embargo that whittled down Haiti’s robust assembly workforce from more than 100,000 workers to 17,000, or the lifting of the embargo, which brought with it a poison-pill gift in the form of an IMF-engineered end to Haiti’s protective tariffs, which conveniently enough made Haiti the least trade-restrictive nation in the Caribbean and opened the doors to a flood of U.S.-subsidized rice that accelerated the collapse of the farming sector and made a previously self-sufficient country overwhelmingly dependent on foreign rice and therefore vulnerable to increases in global food prices;
whether it was the tens of thousands who lost their manufacturing jobs during the blockade and the hundreds of thousands who were thrown off the land by the rice invasion, many of whom ended up in the cities, in the marginal buildings and burgeoning slums that were hit hardest by the earthquake—the world has done its part in demolishing Haiti.
Diaz also indicts the larger, accelerating dynamics of global inequality. He cites the work of Jan Nederveen Pieterse, who explains that, “The least developed countries lag more and more behind[,] and within countries the number of the poor is growing; on the other side of the split screen is the explosive growth of wealth of the hyper-rich.” Diaz himself concludes that neoliberalism is an increasingly destructive force: “In order to power the explosion of the super-rich and the ultra-rich, middle classes are being forced to fail, working classes are being re-proletarianized, and the poorest are being pushed beyond the grim limits of subsistence, into a kind of sepulchral half-life, perfect targets for any ‘natural disaster’ that just happens to wander by.” Like Paul Famer, whose saintly work on behalf of the poor is matched by a prophetic indictment of the conditions that made them so, Diaz sees an increasingly zero-sum social order, where one person’s excess must be paid for by hundreds’ deprivation.
Diaz’s analysis reminds me of the work of Thomas Pogge, who has for years indicted the developed world for neglecting the poorest billions. He notes, with Global Financial Integrity, that the illicit financial flows out of the developing world and into the developed world overwhelm the “aid assistance” so piously held up as evidence of concern. He has observed that “The developing countries are missing out on some $700 billion annually in export revenues because the developed countries insisted on grandfathering heavy protections of their markets — through tariffs, quotas, anti-dumping duties and subsidies to domestic producers.” And for Pogge, this is merely the tip of an iceberg of exploitation:
Many features of the existing global order embody similar trade-offs between the interests of the high-income countries and their citizens on the one hand and the global poor on the other. An unconditional resource privilege gives us access to a larger, cheaper and more reliable supply of foreign resources, because we can acquire ownership of them from anyone who happens to exercise effective power without regard to whether the country’s population either approves the sale or benefits from the proceeds. Advantageous also to putschists and tyrants in the developing world, broad resource and borrowing privileges are much worse, however, for the global poor than would be narrower such privileges conditional on minimal domestic legitimacy.
The existing TRIPs agreement is better for us and worse for the global poor than an alternative that would have required the rich countries to supply funds for shielding the global poor from exorbitant mark-ups on drugs and seeds. The existing Law of the Sea Treaty is better for us and worse for them than an alternative that would have guaranteed the poor countries some share of the value of harvested seabed resources. It is better for us and worse for the global poor that we do not have to pay for the negative externalities we impose on them: for the pollution we have produced over many decades and the resulting effects on their environment and climate, for the rapid depletion of natural resources, . . . and for the violence caused by our demand for drugs and our war on drugs.
The cumulative impact of all these trade-offs upon the global poor is likely to be staggering. In the 14 years since the end of the Cold War, some 250 million human beings have died prematurely from poverty-related causes, with 18 million more added each year. Had the developed countries shaping the global rules given more weight to the interests of the global poor, the toll in early deaths and deprivations would certainly and foreseeably have been vastly lower at negligible cost to our affluence. [citations omitted]
What’s most shameful here is that apparently small advantages for the top have come at the cost of deep deprivations for hundreds of millions of people. In his book Politics as Usual, Pogge notes that “the bottom half of humankind has seen its share of global private wealth shrink to 1.1 percent and its share of global household income to 3 percent, while the corresponding shares of the top tenth of humankind have risen to 85.1 and 71.1 percent, respectively.” Pogge thus argues that, “had the design of global institutional arrangements involved a little more concern for poverty avoidance, the share of the poorest half in global household income might well have sunk to no lower than 5 percent––high enough to avoid life-threatening poverty.” And in his book World Poverty and Human Rights, Pogge claims that “Most of the global poverty problem could be eliminated through minor modifications in the global order that would entail at most slight reductions in the incomes of the affluent.”
In the book Thomas Pogge and His Critics, Joshua Cohen has critiqued these ideas, and Pogge has responded to the critique. Perhaps Charles Kenny’s Getting Better can be seen as a response to the Pieterse work quoted above. I hope to give my own thoughts on those debates soon. But for now, both Diaz and Pogge offer provocative and troubling takes on the global responsibility for what often appear to be local problems. David Brooks has said that disasters “expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities.” But it’s only interpretations of disasters, and their adoption by a significant number of people, that can lead to democratic evolution toward decent patters of trade, investment, and consumption.
Image Credit: AIDG.