Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Damming the Flood

Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment (Verso, 2008) is a powerful indictment of imperial intervention as it seeks to destroy popular resistance to globalized exploitation (which includes forcing open local markets and the production of cheap goods through an exploited and non-unionized labor force). Much of the content has been discussed in recent posts (here and here) and so this isn't going to be a traditional book review. Instead, I want to focus on three points in which Hallward's analysis is incisive:

1) The Haitian people are the subject of their history and not the object. Nowhere in the text does Hallward treat them as victims. Instead, when their political gains are temporarily reversed by intervention (read: well-funded coups), Hallward treats these reversals according to the amount of effort required to temporarily halt popular movements.

2) Violence will not be judged against a neutral background. Hallward refuses to accept a framework that judges the violence of Lavalas against a background that assumes that exploitation and imperial intervention happens in a non-violent context. Hallward repeatedly shows how any pro-Lavalas or pro-Aristide violence takes place in a context where a much better armed opposition act as aggressors. In fact, the remarkable point is the relative lack of violence committed by the state under pro-Lavalas leaders.

3) Non-governmental Organizations are not neutral. This is a difficult point to get across. First, it probably has to do with the neutral sounding name, when many of these groups could properly be called, in the case of Haiti, Ideological Counter-state Apparatuses. Hallward shows how the operation of NGOs allows 'rich countries a morally respectable way of subcontracting the sovereignty of the nations they exploit' (179). While some of these groups do respectable work with the poor and exploited, the problem remains that their primary responsibility is to the sources of their funding, which means that they function according to a mandate set not by the people of Haiti, but to rich donors outside of the country. Instead of directly giving foreign aid to the government, where it has the possibility of being utilized according to a plan (here health, there jobs, there education), these tasks are privatized, fragmented, and often rely on elite contacts for local distribution, which reproduces class inequality.

This last point is especially important as NGOs (or ICAs) swarm Haiti after the earthquake, although when reading about the situation it is important to consider how non-Haitian aid and intervention makes victims of Haitians, that is, makes them objects of their history and not subjects through the destruction of local solidarity.

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