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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Haiti News Coverage: Good Intentions, but Analysis Misses the Mark by Stanley Lucas

Over the past few months, the major cable news outlets, such as CNN and Fox, have tried to cover the lack of recovery in Haiti and the chaos in the wake of the rigged elections.  The coverage has been somewhat inconsistent, however, and has unfortunately missed some key elements of the story.  Anderson Cooper had done round the clock coverage on Haiti in the wake of the January 12 earthquake, but has only followed up sporadically.  Bill O’Reilly offered hope to Haitians when he and Geraldo Rivera looked into the slow pace of recovery and the delay in remitting aid to the country.  O’Reilly pledged to stay on top of the story and hold people accountable, but it has been months since he has offered any update.

In the past few weeks, Haiti has become more interesting again.  In the aftermath of scandalous elections, people have been protesting and violence has erupted and Port-au-Prince is burning.  This makes for good TV, and there has been an uptick in the coverage.  Even political heavyweight Sarah Palin went down to Haiti over the weekend, and Greta Van Sustern from Fox covered her trip and reported from Haiti.

No one doubts that the journalists’ intentions are good, and their hearts are in the right place. They have seen Haitian suffering firsthand and have surely been personally moved by the stories they have heard and sights they have seen.  And, no matter what your politics are, Sarah Palin, O’Reilly, Greta Van Susteren, and Anderson Cooper are huge names with a lot of viewers and a lot of influence.  But it is the reality of TV news that violence, controversy and misery make for compelling TV.  Some commentators have called it “poverty porn”.  This is cynical, but ongoing in-depth analysis of the system problems in Haiti probably would not get big ratings.  In any case, their coverage is invaluable to keeping Haiti in the spotlight highlighting the ongoing need and urging people to action, but they owe it to the Haitians to really get the story right.  Unfortunately, I’ve been struck by how the analysis and conclusions that are being drawn by the media in general – not just Fox and CNN – fall short on the analysis and sometimes completely miss the point.  They have their facts right:  1. No progress has been made in the recovery, people are suffering and government is to blame; and 2. There is widespread unrest.  But the conclusions they draw about why Haiti remains mired in this situation are often only a small part of the story.

On the first point about the lack of recovery and need in the country, I’ve heard folks like Greta Van Susteren from Fox and others talk about the absence of a government in Haiti being a major contributing factor.  This misses the real story here. 

First, it is true that the Haitian government is inept and lacks capacity.  In fact, they don’t even know how many people work for the government.  But this analysis leaves out the most salient fact:  the government is very much present.  President Preval exercises a high level of government control.  He has just chosen to exercise his strength to enrich himself and his allies to ensure that they maintain their stranglehold over the meager resources of Haiti.  Preval along with an entrenched and corrupt business cartel have long controlled the resources of the country.  The business cartel, known as the Groupe de Bourdon, controls more than 95% of the economic activity of the country yet only pays 5% of the taxes.  They control the loan industry so people are unable to secure capital to start up new businesses – or if they do, they secure a loan at 40%+.  Preval and his supporters have done nothing to move Haiti forward in any area, but they have gotten very rich off corrupt business dealings and monopolistic policies.  Haiti has one of the highest income distribution gaps in the world.  Haiti is in the state it is in because of government corruption – not because of an absence of government.

Second, in that same report from Greta Van Susteren, Sarah Palin who was in Haiti, notes that there is huge need in Haiti, but much of the aid isn’t getting to where it needs to go.  Again, this is a fact, and she is right.  But she was in Haiti promoting and raising money for an international charity led by the Reverend Franklin Graham, which is no doubt doing good work in Haiti, and the Haitian people are tremendously grateful.  But again, she misses the real point here.  Haiti has been dependent on international aid for decades and has not at all shown any steps to moving toward breaking that cycle of dependence.  More aid is not the answer; better aid is.  It’s worth noting that Reverend Graham is the first American leader that has the moral compass to state publicly on Sean Hannity’s show on December 15 that the Nepalese soldiers of the United Nation Mission (MINUSTAH) brought the cholera epidemic to Haiti.  This is something that the UN mission and others are trying to cover up to avoid paying the damages done to Haiti and it’s people (see : ).

Over the past 20 years, the international community has poured more than $11 billion into Haiti – and they have little if anything to show for it.  Why is this?  Certainly corruption is at the core, but more importantly, no one has ever really focused on strengthening the Haitian people and Haitian institutions.  If Haiti is to make the best use of the international aid at this point, the country must restructure its approach to aid.  There must be an overarching strategy that has clearly defined goals.  Then aid needs to be allocated to support those goals, but more importantly, it needs to strengthen Haitians.  Haiti cannot continue to be the “Republic of NGOs”.  All this recovery money, $1.2 billion of private donations and $2.9 billion appropriated by U.S. Congress since July, that has gone to Haiti – or has not yet arrived in Haiti – is sustaining international NGOs and providing short-term/band aid assistance to the Haitian people (see: ).  Unless aid goes to building Haitian capacity, the international community will again be throwing good money after bad and only keeping themselves in business.

This dynamic is highlighted by the track record of the Interim Reconstruction Commission (HIRC) led by Haitian Prime Minister Bellerive and former President Bill Clinton.  The HIRC has allocated only about 25% of the funding it has at its disposal and only a small fraction has gone to Haitians – in Haiti or in the Diaspora of which there are two million in the US alone.  The perception among Haitians is that contracts and grants have been awarded to friends of Mr. Clinton to rebuild the country.  According to Haiti Libre, of the 1,583 projects approved by the United States for a total of US$267 million, only 24 projects went to Haitians.  Haitian institutions supporting the victims received 1.6% of the money, and 98.4% went to US contractors.  The big fundraiser done by the Hollywood elite raised huge amounts of money (almost US$76 million), but it all went to international NGOs again.  This is a short sighted and unsustainable approach to Haiti.

The second point of coverage about the unrest in Haiti is more troubling to me.  Most the coverage on the protests has essentially implied that the Haitian people are to blame for the violence and disruption of their country.  Commentators mention all the calls for “calm” that have been issued by the US Government and international organizations such as the UN and OAS, and note that the supporters of the presidential candidates are instigating the violence.  But again, they completely miss the real story.  The real story is that the Haitian people are fed up and have absolutely no other recourse than to protest loudly (see: ). How do you think people would react when the ruling paarty treats democratic protestors like this:

After 11 months, the 1.7 million people are still living in the streets with no access to basic services.  They are living in the streets due to an epic failure of the Preval Administration – and the Aristide Administration before him – to act on the knowledge that Haiti sits on two earthquake fault lines.  Certainly Preval could have minimized the serious devastation of this earthquake by doing some civic education or instituting building codes or having an emergency plan in place.  He did nothing.  So the people know Preval’s government failed to prepare for this tragedy.  They also know that the international community donated a lot of money and there is very little progress.  For this they also blame Preval.  The international community is rightly concerned about government corruption and wants more control over the aid money.  And, Mr. Clinton seems to be having some trouble getting countries to fulfill their commitments to fund the recovery.

In spite of the slow pace of recovery and complete loss of faith in their government, the people have been incredibly calm and patient and have endured this tragedy with unparalleled dignity.  But one thing the Haitian people will never stand for is a rigged election.  So when Preval and his cronies rigged the November 28 presidential and legislative elections – and did it in such a blatant way – that was the last straw (see: ).

The warning bells about Preval’s impending electoral coup were sounded well in advance of the elections.  See the following pre-electoral updates:  
Everyone in Haiti and in the international community knew the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) was partisan and an instrument of the Preval regime, but elections were forced through anyway.  Everyone also knew that every single political crisis in Haiti since 1995 has stemmed from rigged elections.  Again, elections were forced through anyway.  Now, the people are being told to swallow this farce in the interest of stability.  They are told to pursue legal means of recourse, but all those processes for recourse are presided over by the partisan CEP.  What hope of justice is there under a CEP that just organized and presided over such a sham election?  And this is not the first electoral farce they have presided over.  The 2009 legislative elections were also rigged by this same CEP.  The solutions being presented are unacceptable.  The people are mad as hell and not going to take it.  So to any way imply that the Haitian people are the source of this instability or to insinuate that they are to blame for the unrest is hurtful and irresponsible.

Last week, Anderson Cooper did a segment on the Haitian unrest.  Who did he have on the program to analyze what’s happening on the ground?  A prominent Haitian journalist or commentator?  No.  The head of a Haitian civil society group?  No.  He talked to Sean Penn, an American celebrity.  I hasten to add here that Sean Penn has been doing excellent work in Haiti, and has poured his heart and soul into helping the people.  But does 11 months in a recovery situation make him the best commentator on a volatile political situation?  Probably not.  To avoid these mistakes and to get to the real story in Haiti, the international media should really expand their networks of contacts on the ground in Haiti and start talking to some of the prominent and well-respected Haitian journalists and civil society leaders who are in touch with the real story and can provide some meaningful and credible analysis.  The Haitian people need the international media to get the story right.  They need them to get the point.