The Walls of Port-au-Prince

The following is a short, unpublished piece I wrote immediately following the earthquake that hit Haiti two years ago today. My theme is walls because of the physical nature of the tragedy, but Port-au-Prince consists as much of music and injustice, resilience and frustration, as of bricks and mortar. May it come back stronger and fairer than it was, and every bit as brilliant.

When I first visited Haiti as a backpacking student eleven Boxing Days ago, my future wife and I arrived by bus after dark and went to bed without having seen the dimly lit capital. Lying awake in the sweltering, airless hotel room, I spent hours listening to the animals scurrying about and relaying their squeaked messages inside the walls that hugged the bed on three sides.

When we awoke to a sunny Sunday morning and went out for a look around, the first thing I remember noticing was how vocal the walls outside were as well. A giant Wu-Tang symbol. “Aristide or death” scrawled in Creole. Layers of stories.

A decade later, I was back in Haiti, as a journalist this time. And again the walls. As my fixer Lolo and I waited for a ride, I commented on how often I had seen the graffitied name of a certain candidate in the upcoming senatorial elections. “He must be really popular,” I said. “Do you think he’s going to win?” “Nah,” he answered dismissively, “he just pays a lot of people to write that stuff.”

Everywhere the walls talked. Pro-Aristide. Anti-Aristide. Pro-government. Anti-government. Moses. Che. Musicians. Gang leaders. Only Satan and the UN peacekeeping mission received universally bad reviews.

So many walls, even where there was no obvious reason for them. “Sometimes the rich buy up land and put up walls without building anything on it,” Lolo said as we drove through the northern outskirts on another sunny Sunday morning. “Just to keep the poor people from using it.”

The walls also kept people and secrets in. Those shopping or just passing through the heart of the city could forget that the national penitentiary’s blue-and-white walls concealed nearly 4,000 men in a space the UN deemed fit for 438. Inside the cells, rough drawings of women, guns and musical instruments did little to distract from the overcrowding and squalor. In the corridors, the walls displayed officially sanctioned murals and slogans. At the entrance of a three-storey ship-like structure out of whose many barred windows dangled the legs of those lacking the seniority for a mattress, “Welcome to Titanic” was splashed in bold red, green and black. Roro Pascal, the gentle-eyed 26 year-old prison artist, told me UN forces had arrested him four years earlier and he was still waiting to see a judge. “What did they bust you for,” I asked. “Murder,” he said and he smiled sheepishly.

The morning after the rains started up, a radio newscaster announced the storm had brought down a cemetery wall, killing a young girl.

Then, a few months after I left, the walls suddenly stopped telling stories and they tried to kill their city.

Latest Developments, October 12

In the latest news and analysis…

Hunting W
Amnesty International is calling on Canada to arrest former US president George W. Bush when he visits the country next week.
“Canada is required by its international obligations to arrest and prosecute former President Bush given his responsibility for crimes under international law including torture,” according to AI’s Susan Lee.
“As the US authorities have, so far, failed to bring former President Bush to justice, the international community must step in.  A failure by Canada to take action during his visit would violate the UN Convention against Torture and demonstrate contempt for fundamental human rights.”

Enforcing neutrality
The Associated Press reports the Swiss government has proposed a new law that would impose a number of restrictions on private security companies based in the country, including preventing them from taking part in foreign conflicts.
“The bill was prompted by the decision of Aegis, one of the world’s biggest private security contractors, to set up a Swiss holding company in 2010. Such holding companies are explicitly included in the proposal, meaning Aegis would have to report its activities to Swiss authorities if the bill is passed.”

A prescription for helping Africa
The UN News Centre reports Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro believes that although aid is still important for Africa, the continent’s needs also include improved market access for its exports, affordable access to foreign technologies and “more policy space” for its countries to chart their own paths.
“‘However, what Africa needs most, is to be recognized as a new investment frontier – where the returns are among the highest in the world,’ she said, noting that the continent has some of the largest known reserves of mineral resources including diamonds and gold; growing oil potential as Ghana and Uganda join the list of exporters; and the largest amount of unexploited arable land, a strategic asset in a world where food crises are becoming recurrent.

The dangers of foreign capital
On the other hand, the UN Development Programme’s Selim Jahan argues that both rich and poor countries must do more to reduce the latter’s over-reliance on foreign capital in order to reduce their vulnerability to global economic shocks.
“For instance, countries can reduce their dependency on exports by recalibrating growth strategies away from a narrow range of exports and by boosting demand from domestic sources. The international community can help reduce the susceptibility of developing countries to volatile commodity prices with the development of new international commodity agreements or funds to compensate countries for the loss in income due to falling prices.”

A call for decency, if not fairness
ECONorthwest’s Ann Hollingshead resists the temptation to project her cause – global tax reform – onto the Occupy Wall Street protestors, arguing instead that they stand for something far more fundamental: decency.
“The Occupy Wall Street movement doesn’t have pithy slogans, quick sayings, or easy solutions because it isn’t about any one problem. It isn’t about offshore finance, or bailouts, or CEO pay, or tax evasion. All of these events are the symptoms of an underlying problem—the status quo. It is a status quo that allows 25% of the FTSE 100′s subsidiaries to lie in tax havens. The status quo that allows the same person to hold both positions of CEO and president of the board. That allows Warren Buffet to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary. And that allows the average American to earn 1/10,800th of the average Forbes 400 earner.”

A very low bar
The Overseas Development Institute’s Jonathan Glennie suggests, given “the west has systematically ruined Haiti’s chances of emerging from destitution,” it might be time for traditional donors to “humbly walk away” and see if other nations can do more good for a devastated country that is still in need of assistance.
“Not that there is any space for naivety about south-south solidarity. Big brothers such as Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela may well engage in the right kind of rhetoric, but there are internal pressures in these countries to act in their own interests rather than Haiti’s – especially on agricultural issues – just as the west has always done. After all, Brazil instigated Minustah in its attempt to look important enough for a permanent security council seat, although it quickly became a Washington-directed intervention. It is not, then, geography that matters, but politics and attitude.
Nevertheless, these countries have also suffered exploitation at various points in their history. They are therefore more likely to understand what is going on and less likely to engage in it. Will they do any better? They can hardly do any worse.”

Afghan minerals
Global Witness’s Eleanor Nichol calls for cautious planning regarding Afghanistan’s huge mineral wealth which has the potential to lift the country’s people out of poverty and end its dependence on foreign aid or could become “a fresh axis of conflict and instability.”
“This means embedding clear processes for the award of extractive concessions; requiring extractive companies to disclose revenue paid to the state on a project-by-project basis; setting up sound legal, regulatory and contractual frameworks that safeguard social, environmental and human rights; publishing beneficial ownership details of companies engaged in the sector; and ensuring Afghans are consulted on, and can monitor, mining activities.”

Paying taxes for selfish reasons
The European Network on Debt and Development’s Alex Marriage argues it is actually in the best interests of transnational companies to integrate tax policy into their approach to corporate social responsibility.
“Research has shown that direct investors in low income countries tend to value political stability, the rule of law and human capital more than effective tax rates when deciding whether to invest. Sufficient, predictable tax revenue is needed to foster all of these conditions. High public investment is something companies need but some are not prepared to pay for.”

Latest Developments, September 16

In the latest news and analsis…

Broken promises
The UN says donors are not living up to their promises in Haiti and around the world.
“There is a troubling distance between what we have promised and what we are actually doing to support the global partnership for development. And that gap is expected to widen,” according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Missing plutonium
Wired’s Danger Room reports on the difficulties encountered by the US, which has sold 17.5 tons of fissile material to other countries over the last 60 years, as it seeks to “secure all vulnerable nuclear material” worldwide.
“And there’s just one other problem. Subtracting all the nuke material that’s been accounted for and secured still leaves 2,700 kg — nearly three tons — outstanding. And that’s enough material to make dozens of nuclear weapons.”

The drug hemisphere
The White House’s new list of major drug producing or transit countries names 22 states, of which 17 are in the Americas.
“Pursuant to section 706(1) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2003 (Public Law 107-228)(FRAA), I hereby identify the following countries as major drug transit or major illicit drug producing countries: Afghanistan, The Bahamas, Belize, Bolivia, Burma, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela.”

Corporate transparency
In a piece carrying the headline “Licence to Loot,” the Economist looks into international efforts to end the secrecy surrounding beneficial ownership of companies.
“Campaigners and, increasingly, criminal-justice agencies want the rules tightened—and not only in faraway islands. The case for this is highlighted in “The Money Laundry”, a new book by Jason Sharman, an Australian academic. As a test, he tried creating companies in various places without using a real (verified) ID. Of the 47 providers of registration services he approached in OECD countries, no fewer than 35 agreed to form shell companies without requiring proper documents. Some also helped to open bank accounts. Classic tax havens were on the whole much more rigorous.”

Anti-bribery legislation
Global Financial Integrity’s Tom Cardamone writes about a new paper entitled “Busting Bribery: Sustaining the Global Momentum of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act” authored by a pair of American law professors to counter the US Chamber of Commerce’s recent campaign against the anti-bribery legislation.
“To the idea that a company could be insulated from a charge of bribery if it had an anti-corruption program in place [Harvard’s David] Kennedy and [Northeastern’s Dan] Danielsen note that this would merely allow corporations to implement ‘fig leaf’ FCPA compliance programs in order to avoid criminal culpability.  Rather than leveling the playing field as the Chamber suggests, this provision could increase the incidents of bribery while reducing the likelihood of conviction.”

Democratizing the IMF
According to the findings of a Center for Global Development online survey, development workers in 81 countries overwhelmingly favour an end to Europe’s exclusive hold on the International Monetary Fund’s leadership.
“First, both European and non-European participants reject Europe’s traditional selection prerogative by large margins, with equally strong support for an open, transparent, competitive selection process. Agreement with an open process characterizes 92 percent of respondents from low-income countries, 90 percent from middle-income countries, and 84 percent from high-income countries.”

Bad food
Calling voluntary guidelines inadequate, a UN expert called on national governments to stand up to the food industry by imposing taxes and tougher regulations on unhealthy foods that kill about 3 million people per year worldwide.
“It is crucial for world leaders to counter food industry efforts to sell unbalanced processed products and ready-to-serve meals too rich in transfats and saturated fats, salt and sugars. Food advertising is proven to have a strong impact on children, and must be strictly regulated in order to avoid the development of bad eating habits early in life,” according to Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter.

Expensive food
Mother Jones food and agriculture blogger Tom Philpott rejects the Wall Street line that soaring demand and relatively stagnant supply, rather than rampant speculative trading, explain the record food prices that have pushed millions into poverty and hunger around the globe.
“One way that investors morally justify the price surge they have set off is by arguing that while it might boost hunger in the short term, higher prices draw additional investment into agriculture, which will help “feed the world” going forward. But this, too, is hype. Indeed, commodities aren’t the only ag-related bubble now in the process of puffing up—prices of farmland, too, have exploded as investors search for new ways to cash in on Wall Street’s food pitch. And as investors snatch up farmland in places like Africa and Latin America for export crops, the amount of land devoted to feeding low-income residents of those places dwindles, and food insecurity rises.”

NCD generics
Intellectual Property Watch reports on concerns that next week’s UN summit on non-communicable diseases will concentrate on prevention to the exclusion of a much-needed debate on treatment as NCDs become a bigger problem in poor countries.
“But public health advocates see a coming crisis in treatment and want measures now to address it. For instance, Health Action International issued a briefing paper this week showing medicine prices are often too high for those on low wages, and urging the summit to ‘refocus on the attainable goal of universal access to essential medicines as a core priority for the treatment of NCDs.’

Ideology promotion
London School of Economics PhD student Karl Muth argues Carnegie Mellon University is set to “sow the seeds of African neoliberalism” with its announcement of a planned new campus in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
“However, liberal universities have a history of large influence in post-conflict zones, particularly in places recovering from internal conflict.  While the influence of the Chicago Boys after the 1973 Chilean coup is the most famous example, various neoliberal institutions have had more subtle effects, from encouraging the rapid evolution of economic policy in the Philippines to opposing minimum wage laws in post-handover Hong Kong.  The disorder of post-internal-conflict political reformation combined with the fact that incoming regimes are more likely to have military might than economic expertise allows foreign institutions to have disproportionately more influence.”

Latest Developments, July 18

In today’s news and analysis…

UN General Assembly president Joseph Deiss has urged reform of the Security Council’s size and membership, saying “any solution to the long-running debate on making the Council’s composition more representative ultimately lies with the 193 Member States of the world body.” Except that in realitiy, responsibility “ultimately lies” with the US, China, Russia, the UK and France who, as the five permanent members of the Security Council, enjoy veto power over charter changes. For example, even if a two-thirds majority voted to scrap Security Council vetoes, any of the five permanent members could trump those 130+ votes with a single “no” of their own.

Former UN assistant secretary general Ramesh Thakur argues the UN “remains our best and only hope for unity-in-diversity in addressing problems without passports that require solutions sans visas,” while conceding the organization has to work harder to meet what he terms the “legitimacy criterion” and the “performance criterion.” He calls for the reform of a number of UN bodies, including the Security Council, as well as “greater transparency, democracy and inclusiveness in decision-making.”

According to a new survey of British public views regarding UK foreign policy, the majority do not think ethics should play a role in international relations. “The government’s conception of security, linking spending on development with a direct enhancement of the security of British citizens, has yet to resonate with the public. Moreover, findings that show “the general public and opinion-formers consider aid largely irrelevant to Britain’s international reputation, and as playing only a small role in serving national interests” could make it tough for the government to stick to its commitment to raise aid levels to 0.7 percent of GDP, according to Chatham House researcher Rob Bailey.

In an editorial entitled “Human rights at home, too,” Canada’s Globe and Mail suggests the EU needs to do a little introspection if it wants to have a credible voice when criticizing human rights violations elsewhere in the world: “The EU is quick to wag fingers at other countries that fail to respect human rights. It’s time they had a look at the ramshackle dwellings and decrepit shacks the Roma inhabit in their own backyard.” To which one commenter responded: “And Canada should look at how it treats Aboriginal Canadians before we get to (sic) high and mighty about our position on racism and human rights.”

Former G7/G8 sherpa Gordon Smith frets about the future role for Canada, a country which accounts for roughly 0.5 percent of the global population, in international diplomatic power circles. As for what Canada’s current government has to offer the international community, Maclean’s Magazine’s Paul Wells argues now that the Conservatives finally have a majority government and a weak opposition means they can do more or less as they wish within parliament, they are adjusting their persecution complex to see the rest of the world as “an excellent substitute enemy.”

A new Bureau of Investigative Journalism piece disputes the US claim that drones have killed no civilians in Pakistan for nearly a year. The report comes right on the heels of efforts to seek the arrest of ex-CIA general counsel John Rizzo for his role in approving drone targets.

The international community is looking to regulate the conventional arms trade next summer but may yet leave off riot-control equipment, which some critics refer to as “weapons of repression.”

The Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting declares South Sudan “the biggest development challenge in the world.” She writes: “What faces South Sudan is daunting: it needs help on the scale of a Marshall Plan for one country. It’s an unprecedented development challenge and, so far, there has been more goodwill than action or sense of urgency.” Meanwhile, the last country to bear that distinction, Haiti, still has 600,000-700,000 people living in tents, most of its destroyed infrastructure has not been rebuilt and most of the rubble has not been removed 18 months after the earthquake, according to physician and longtime Haiti advocate Paul Farmer.

Also writing for the Guardian, Nicholas Watt describes the “new Scramble for Africa,” which, he says, China appears to be winning. Africa also has Google scrambling, as it tries to provide more local content in local languages, in order to get into a largely untapped market.

World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy kicked off a conference to review the Aid for Trade initiative – intended to provide poor countries with the tools and expertise needed to boost trade – with words of praise for the six year-old program: “Results range from increased export volumes to more employment, to faster customs clearance times and impacts on poverty.” Note the language: “increased export volumes,” “more employment” and “faster customs clearance times” but no modifier for “impacts on poverty.” The same conference saw the unveiling of the Transparency in Trade Initiative, described by one UN agency as a “project aiming to eliminate the transparency gap resulting from the lack of access to data on country-specific trade policies”

And finally, Monday also saw the beginning of a week-long conference on intellectual property and genetic resources, traditional knowledge and folklore.