Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Model for Haiti: An Excerpt from The Shock Doctrine

By Naomi Klein - January 22nd, 2010
Posted on

As if disasters aren't bad enough on their own, they often precede an even more chilling aftermath, argues Canadian journalist Naomi Klein. In The Shock Doctrine, published in 2007, Klein contends that disasters leave populations vulnerable to carefully calculated policy changes that would never pass muster under normal democratic circumstances. The following is an excerpt from the conclusion of The Shock Doctrine, outlining steps other groups have taken to prevent "disaster capitalism" from prevailing post-crisis.

Despite all the successful attempts to exploit the 2004 tsunami, memory also proved to be an effective tool of resistance in some areas where it struck, particularly in Thailand. Dozens of coastal villages were flattened by the wave, but unlike in Sri Lanka, many Thai settlements were successfully rebuilt within months. The difference did not come from the government. Thailand's politicians were just as eager as those elsewhere to use the storm as an excuse to evict fishing people and hand over land tenure to large resorts. Yet what set Thailand apart was that villagers approached all government promises with intense skepticism and refused to wait patiently in camps for an official reconstruction plan. Instead, within weeks, hundreds of villagers engaged in what they called land "reinvasions."
They marched past the armed guards on the payroll of developers, tools in hand, and began marking off the sites where their old houses had been. In some cases, reconstruction began immediately. "I am willing to bet my life on this land, because it is ours," said Ratree Kongwatmai, who lost most of her family in the tsunami.

The most daring reinvasions were performed by Thailand's indigenous fishing peoples called the Moken, or "sea gypsies." After centuries of disenfranchisement, the Moken had no illusions that a benevolent state would give them a decent piece of land in exchange for the coastal properties that had been seized. So, in one dramatic case, the residents of the Ban Tung Wah Village in the Phang Nga province "gathered themselves together and marched right back home, where they encircled their wrecked village with rope, in a symbolic gesture to mark their land ownership," explained a report by a Thai NGO. "With the entire community camping out there, it became difficult for the authorities to chase them away, especially given the intense media attention being focused on tsunami rehabilitation." In the end, the villagers negotiated a deal with the government to give up part of their oceanfront property in exchange for legal security on the rest of their ancestral land. Today, the rebuilt village is a showcase of Moken culture, complete with museum, community centre, school and market. "Now, officials from the sub-district come to Ban Tung Wah to learn about 'people-managed tsunami rehabilitation' while researchers and university students turn up there by the bus-full to study 'indigenous people's wisdom.'"

All along the Thai coast where the tsunami hit, this kind of direct-action reconstruction is the norm. The key to their success, community leaders say, is that "people negotiate for their land rights from a position of being in occupation"; some have dubbed the practice "negotiating with your hands." Thailand's survivors have also insisted on a different kind of aid—rather than settling for handouts, they have demanded the tools to carry out their own reconstruction. Dozens of Thai architecture students and professors, for example, volunteered to help community members design their new houses and draw their own rebuilding plans; master boat builders trained villagers to make their own, more sophisticated fishing vessels. The results are communities stronger than they were before the wave. The houses on stilts built by Thai villagers in Ban Tung Wah and Baan Nairai are beautiful and sturdy; they are also cheaper, larger and cooler than the sweltering prefab cubicles on offer there from foreign contractors. A manifesto drafted by a coalition of Thai tsunami survivor communities explains the philosophy: "The rebuilding work should be done by local communities themselves, as much as possible. Keep contractors out, let communities take responsibility for their own housing."

Uniting all these examples of people rebuilding for themselves is a common theme: participants say they are not just repairing buildings but healing themselves. It makes perfect sense. The universal experience of living through a great shock is the feeling of being completely powerless: in the face of awesome forces, parents lose the ability to save their children, spouses are separated, homes—places of protection—become death traps. The best way to recover from helplessness turns out to be helping—having the right to be part of a communal recovery. "Reopening our school says this is a very special community, tied together by more than location but by spirituality, by bloodlines and by a desire to come home," said the assistant principal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


The following editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, Jan. 14:

Haitians have long been prey to hurricanes and coups, their nation ravaged by erosion and corruption, mudslides and marauders, poverty and violence. Now the few economic and political gains made over five years of relative stability have been buried along with thousands of corpses in the rubble of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. The presidential palace, parliament, government ministries and hospitals - indeed most of the capital of Port-au-Prince - are in ruins. An already dysfunctional state now lacks even the edifices of government. Gone too are some of the buttresses: the archbishop and his cathedral; the head of the U.N. mission and some of his top aides, who died when their headquarters collapsed.
Not even a developed country could completely withstand such a powerful temblor so close to the Earth's surface and city center. Yet the full extent of Haiti's devastation is a result of its broken state, where 80 percent live below the poverty line. Port-au-Prince quadrupled to nearly 3 million people in the last 25 years as Haitians fled a denuded countryside in search of food and work. They built shanties out of watered-down concrete on precarious hillsides. They didn't have water and electricity, let alone zoning and inspectors to insist on safety. The international community has made some headway in building a civilian police force to provide security, but not as much in bolstering a civilian government to provide for its people. A school to train magistrates was to reopen this month; parliamentary elections were to be held in March and a presidential election in December. Tentative investments were trickling in to tourism and industry. All of that came to a screeching halt in seconds.
Of course the United States and the international community must respond to the terrible emergency first. They must tend to the wounded, provide shelter for tens of thousands of homeless and bury the dead. But they also must plan now for rebuilding the capital and, even harder still, creating a functioning state. Yes, that's nation-building. It is the urban planning that never took place. It means working with the government to build adequate housing and schools. It requires job creation - and not necessarily in the capital. This is an agricultural country that must be able to farm and feed itself.
For decades, the United States has turned its attention to Haiti only sporadically, only in times of crisis, when too many boatloads of hungry Haitians washed onto Florida shores or when a government was about to fall - but then lost interest to another crisis. If the U.S. has the will and resources to build up governments in Afghanistan, Iraq, even Yemen, surely it can show leadership in building a functioning country on an island just a few hundred miles from the coast of Florida. Enough is enough for this failed state.