Tuesday, February 22, 2011


by Katie Curran

Ms Curran is in Haiti to train young film-makers.

I wanted to say hi and also let you know more about the situation here in Haiti, at least from my perspective. It’s pretty bad. Actually, it’s horrific, in many ways. I am very grateful to be able to focus on working with the kids here (I call them kids but most are in their 20s) five days a week – they’re fun, smart, very talented, and I hope they can really push for independent media here, which I think is of utmost importance, for Haitians and the world.

The conditions are probably worse than you can imagine, for the majority of Haitians. It was ranked as the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere before the earthquake, and conditions have only worsened. 1,300,000 people were left “homeless” after the earthquake (I put that in quotes, because the shacks so many were living in qualified as homes) and there are still 1,050,000 homeless. They are in camps all over Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas (many neighborhoods have more tents than other buildings). There are a few that are bearable (like the one that is across the street from me), but a recent human rights survey I read described the conditions as close to unlivable (and from what I’ve seen, I agree).

The sanitation is one of the worst problems – though many organizations (over 10,000 NGOs in Haiti) have tried to implement compost toilets, the efforts only scratch the surface. Toilets are overflowing to the point where people are shitting in plastic bags and with no trash services, the bags are just thrown in ravines. The water situation is obviously so bad that it led to cholera. Sanitation conditions of the entire city are absolutely deplorable. Streets are covered with trash and just flow with the water when it rains. Every single ravine is clogged with trash.

The cost of living here is higher than the U.S. People averaging a dollar a day face tuna fish packages that are $4(maybe $2 in the U.S.), $8 orange juice ($4 in the U.S.), $5 for a box of $2 American cereal. A room for rent in a clean house is about $500 a month. I have NO idea how people are surviving.

The political situation is tenuous, to say the least. Protests are a regular occurrence, but they haven’t been very big lately. As you probably know, the president responsible for mass murders and torture has returned, and I didn’t find out until today that I was actually at the same event as him last night (more on that later). The state hasn’t filed any charges against him, though a few individuals have. Though Duvalier/Baby Doc was a relentless dictator, poverty is actually worse now then when he was in office, and many people are supporting him because anything seems better than what they have now – especially the younger ones that didn’t live through his reign. Aristide is supposed to come back, but I’ve heard various rumors as to whether he will, all surrounding stupid bureaucracy about his passport. Lavalas (his party) has been holding press conferences (I live in the same house as the other Haiti Reporter teachers and with other independent journalists who have been reporting on the press conferences). I’ve received very different opinions on Aristide (from rational people that have lived here a long time). The kids, except for a few, are not super interested in politics and I don’t blame them – people say that the country was just broken when Aristide came back(the second time) and spoke nothing of the economic justice he promised, as he had before the US supported coup that ousted him (as the first democratically elected president of Haiti). The kids, in general, like reporting on Haitian culture, the people who have stayed strong against the odds, and the good parts of Haiti, which I totally understand and support. (By the way, I’m writing mostly about the negative stuff because it is so overpowering, but I don’t mean to leave out the amazing things – like the incredible artistic talent, the inner strength and courage and the kindness of so many Haitians – this is, after all, the first slave rebellion that overthrew slavery and colonization). But the kids typically don’t lean towards overtly political stories (their stories, by the way, have been great so far – I’ve been blown away by what they’ve accomplished in 2 months). I think many of them see “politics” not as something that can be of regular people coming together to take control of their own lives, but as the rich, consistently corrupt men that stay at fancy hotels and take power through illegitimate elections (of which they recently had and is still being disputed) and are supported by various members of the military, state police, UN and “paramilitaries” (sometimes referred to as street gangs). Everyone, for the most part, hates the UN and police – the UN is constantly rolling around in their tanks and trucks with machine guns, often pointed directly at people, and the state police are also everywhere. The country is pretty much occupied by the UN soldiers who seem free from any state or international oversight (constantly using live ammunition at protests, etc.).

I have had some interesting insights as a foreigner, ones that I didn’t have last time I came (late spring of 2009).One of the journalists staying here has a lot of connections in the NGO and journalist world, most of which I’ve found to be pretty disgusting. A few of us went to a party at a big house of an NGO in the richest neighborhood of Port au Prince. The (terrifying) motor ride we took to get there drove us by thousands of tents, and once inside the gate EVERYONE was white (except for security) and all dressed up like they were in New York and EVERYONE worked for an NGO or media conglomerate. Then, last night, a few of us went to a“jazz festival”. I was told today that Duvalier was among the guests that included, again, all the NGO people (they all know each other), journalists and ambassadors of all the first-world countries – US, Canada, Spain, etc. It was a group of people that under any other circumstance I would be protesting their political and economic castrations, rather than mingling with them. It was disgusting. When I say NGO, I include not only people from all the different aide organizations (many of whom are paid outrageous salaries to be here) but the World Bank and Organization of American States. I met a guy last night that worked for the OAS in finance, and I said something like, “you all have got to change your economic approach -- capitalism has obviously not worked and its starving people and making everything worse”. And he said, “I totally agree. If you want to see capitalism at it’s best, come to Haiti”. I was quite amazed that he admitted that.

I have never been in a place of such economic disparity. (There are mansions here bigger than the ones on Long Island.)

One of the problems with Haiti is that organizations have either purposefully sidestepped the Haitian state with the good intentions (as obviously the state has not been trustworthy with its funds) or bypassed it out of their own interest. The results are completely disorganized and in-cohesive attempts to improve Haitian living conditions by organizations of every type working independently of each other (resembling hundreds of people trying to stop a gigantic surge of water with small and misshapen plugs) and with no coordination, and economic interests run wild (often
under the auspice of an NGO title). Some of the organizations have done a lot of good, and maybe the situation would be much worse without them, but the lack of coordination and community is a lot of wasted resources at best and contributing to the problems at worst.

The bottom line is that the underlying, root causes are not being addressed and a lack of political structure holds nothing together – I would label the biggest problems as neo-liberal capitalism/globalization, international political destabilization (to support capitalism run riot)and a lack of democracy. I’m pretty convinced that the best use of money/donations is investing in community, grassroots organizations working for political empowerment,education and economic justice, even though it’s tempting to just give money to anybody, anywhere, as that might buy them a meal. Until the political system changes, not much of anything else will change.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Freedom and Capitalism

How free is the worker in capitalism? A student wrote “ The corporate domain is not the only area in which a laborer lives; the laborer leaves the workplace and may do as he or she pleases.”

True, although as some other students point out, in times of recession the worker is reluctant to walk out on a job. Karl Marx, in Das Capital,(1867) makes the point that capitalism is predicated, among other factors, on the freedom of the worker to sell his labor power. Marx says this is why capitalism could not exist in antiquity (slavery) or the Middle Ages (feudalism).

Why does he say that? In Chapter Six, he makes the following points:

1. Labor power is a commodity because it has use value and exchange value.

2. The worker must sell his labor power which he owns as a free person, to the capitalist. The worker’s labor power is the worker’s private property

. 3. The worker sells his labor power because he does not own the means of production and therefore cannot go into business himself.

4. The worker is not however free to sell the commodities that his labor power has produced

In Chapter 7, Marx makes the following points:

1. All value comes from the laboring process. In other words, trees are value-less until they are handled by laborers to have use-value (for example, a table) and exchange value (the selling price of the table in the market place).

2. The capitalist pays the laborer enough for him to subsist or survive (enough for food, clothing, shelter etc). Marx gives the example of a worker paid 3 shillings for six hours work.

3. For the capitalist to make a profit, the worker must work 12 hours at 3 shillings - six hours of which are free to the capitalist. This is why workers’ struggles revolve around hours in a working day.

Paula wrote" However, it is the right of workers, as human beings to enjoy certain alienable privileges that are also protected in collectively such as those explained by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "ARTICLE 4. NO ONE SHALL BE HELD IN SLAVERY OR SERVITUDE; SLAVERY AND THE SLAVE TRADE SHALL BE PROHIBITED IN ALL THEIR FORMS. "

My comment: There is no doubt that capitalism arose at the same time as human rights ideologies, around the 17th century in Europe. Marx believed it’s important to distinguish workers in capitalism from slaves, although the expression ‘wage slaves’ exists. There are other articles in the UDHR and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the US has ratified) that declare the right to bargain collectively.

Slaves don’t receive wages, therefore they cannot be consumers.

Consumerism is a critical function of capitalism. You need people to buy items so they can be sold at a profit. One of the causes of the US Civil War in the 19th Century was that industrialists in the North needed free labor power for industrialization profit making.

Marx makes a critical point. He says that since value comes ONLY from human labor, it must be manipulated in such as way as to create profit. Some might say, isn’t profit created by setting prices? This is my comment: If prices are raised beyond the value that labor has created, the price of the workers’ subsistence will also have to be raised. The only way to realize profit is to add hours to the working day, beyond how much it cost for the workers to subsist and return to work every day. This, again, explains the fight over the working day. The capitalist wants to add more unpaid workers’ hours beyond what it cost to keep the workers ‘alive.


Monday, February 7, 2011

What is Global Governance?

There was an explosion of all kinds of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) after the end of the Cold War. Academically during the 1990s, this explosion was understood from the perspective of a new concept: global governance. Let’s unpack what that discussion has been about:

Global Governance and NGOs: Opposing viewpoints

1) Global governance is a mainstream notion developed during the 1990s. It was a response to globalization, which became truly global after the end of the Cold War. The idea is that transnational actors such as international institutions and NGOs, are called on to provide solutions to transnational problems that are global: refugees, the environment, immigration, wars. Global governance implied that the ‘free market’ solution wasn’t working, and another authority had to supply coordination, cooperation, management and altruistic projects that the ‘free market’ couldn’t offer. Academics also believed that terrorism was and popular uprisings were the result of poorly managed economies and poverty. NGOs, it was believed, would step in and start up employment and reduce poverty. I participated in many academic debates on ‘global governance’ during the mid-1990s. This debate has died down somewhat in academia, because high hopes for GG and NGO participation globally, have not been realized.

2) Conservative investigative sites were the first the sound the alarm re: the new concept of global governance. Reporters like Alex Jones said it was nice-sounding term for a behemoth, un-elected, dictatorial ‘one world government’ under the auspices of the United Nations. In this view, NGOs are the well meaning puppets of this ‘one world government’. The puppet masters are considered to be the most elite bankers and multinational corporate leaders, who want stability to ensure good conditions for profit making. I think this view has a lot of validity if we look at it from the point of view of ‘elite theory’ (that a small elite is managing our lives and want to centralize power in fewer and fewer hands). MY CRITIQUE. Conservatives like Alex Jones want to eliminate as much government intervention as possible. I believe that the only a shift of wealth from the rich to the poor, under the management of the state, can effectively make change for the better.

3) On the other hand, left wing thinkers called the proliferation of NGOs ‘the rise of civic society’. The idea was that NGOS, whether under the auspices of the UN or a state, were the spokespeople for the masses, whose voices were going unheard at the state international level. NGOs provided the framework at the UN and other interstate institutions to voice popular concerns and to raise human rights issues. This view also has some validity. I have been a NGO delegate at the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1994,1996 and 1999. I myself have initiated resolutions and surfaced human rights issues that otherwise would have gone ignored (the humanitarian impacts of UN sanctions, for example). My book in 2004, describes my experiences. I saw firsthand the hard ‘human rights’ football that states play. It goes like this: I won’t raise your human rights issues, if you don’t raise mine. So for example, Russia was afraid that the US would accuse them of human rights violations in Chechnya, so didn’t want to raise US violations of Iraqi human rights during the UN sanctions period in Iraq, 1990-2003. But ultimately, I found human rights NGO efforts were productive. MY CRITIQUE: NGOs aren’t elected, and should not take the place of genuine democratic institutions. If funded by a party to a conflict, they cannot be considered neutral.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011



The battle over the spread of global corporate control in the last two decades is ongoing. The 2008 global economic crisis seems to ‘prove’ that the bankers and corporate leaders are headed in the wrong direction: millions of unemployed, widespread pollution, and the sort of protests we saw in early 2011, in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia.
The authors critique comparative advantage theory. “Under comparative advantage concepts, the viability of economic systems depends entirely upon whether the importing community can pay for its imports with the earned income of its exports…in practice, this neat formula rarely works. Export markets are variable, volatile, and unreliable. More than one nation is now facing a hunger crisis caused by the failure of comparative advantage theories, as export prices crash” (p 162).
What are some alternatives? Cavanagh and Mander suggest that natural resources belong to all us and to future generations, and should go under the heading of the ‘commons’.
The commons, the authors say, include earthly resources, the oceans, outer space, the moon, asteroids, as well as cultural resources, electronic broadcast waves, the internet, and the genes of human beings, animals and plants. All of this is being placed into private hands (unelected, for the most part).
These are the authors’ suggestions.
• Recognition of the Commons, as the heritage of everyone on earth
• Strengthen multilateral treaties such as the Kyoto Protocols. By the way, I don’t agree with the authors about global governance of the environment, because I am not sure how democratic this governance would be
• Install more public trust models to ensure ecological integrity. For example, wide swaths of wilderness in the US are kept by the state on behalf of the public.
• Implementing subsidiarity, which means favoring local production whenever a choice exists. Local commons should be the property of the local community. Includes protectionism of local domestic economies. For example, preventing a Walmart from undercutting local merchants, and encouraging small scale local organic agriculture and energy infrastructures.
• Ground capital and investment in the community. Profits made locally should remain local.
• Introduction of new taxes, such as the “Tobin Tax” on speculative financial transactions and ending corporate tax relief.
• Re-introduction of exchange controls, reregulation of banks and finance institutions. Increase capital gains tax and limit tax evasion tactics.

My view: This book is long on proposals for alternatives but these are never presented in great detail. Implicit in many of the proposals is advocacy for a form of political decentralization. But how does that work in real life? I felt that an imagined case study was needed. The authors could have imagined Anytown, USA, adopting the principles of the commons. Questions of how federal, state and local government might interact, could be answered hypothetically. The best part of the book describes successful alternative policies and systems already in use in communities around the world today.