Relief for Human Disasters

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, that common observation remains a difficult cautionary lesson for many people. A case in point would be international aid, charitable agencies, and development efforts generally. Many of these projects, with varying degrees of self recognition, serve to reinforce the unjust power arrangements that reproduce the conditions for disaster or impoverishment, which then further justify the need for aid, etc.

Proponents of cooperatives should be less prone to the errors of liberalism and charity which ignore or disguise political and business interests. At least, a wiser perspective is likely if cooperators recognize that democratic ownership, central to their own organizations, also is a necessary principle internationally, upheld through "fair trade" and other means.

From a newsletter by long-time cooperators Jack and Connie McLanahan:

I was standing on the grassy bank of a river. The water flowed, sluggish. It was full of muck in which people by the hundreds were floundering, throwing up their arms and crying out for help. I leaned over and caught a victim by the arm. I pulled him up on the bank, cleaned off the mud and set him further back on the land. Again and again, I reached in to seize an outstretched hand. One by one, I wiped off the clinging silt, and set the sufferer on clean earth. I was sweating with my labors.

Suddenly from out of nowhere, I heard a voice. "Look up! Look up!"' I turned my head upstream. There I saw people being pushed in by the thousands!

Revisiting this theme , Ken Silverstein and Alexander Cockburn, in CounterPunch, ask, "Who Made Mitch So Bad?":

There's nothing "natural" about the awful disaster of Hurricane Mitch. Those thousands of lives were lost to mud, water, hunger, disease through human agency. Hillsides dissolved and shanty towns vanished in the floodwaters because of economic and political policies, most imposed at the point of a gun.

If you want to pick a date when the fate of those thousands of poor people was sealed, it...came forty-four years ago, in 1954, when the United Fruit Company, now renamed Chiquita Banana, prodded the CIA to take action against the moderately left government of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Arbenz had compulsorily purchased vast unused stretches of productive land held by United Fruit, and was planning to redistribute it to poor peasants.

A CIA-organized coup was not long coming. Guatemala entered its long night. Along with Arbenz vanished all prospect of land reform, not merely in Guatemala but throughout Central America. Instead, pressed most urgently by the Kennedy administration, came the so-called "export model" of development, designed to combat the example of the Cuban revolution by fostering growth throughout Latin America.

Through the next 30 years in Central America small peasants were pushed off their traditional holdings by local oligarchs flush with money and military equipment furnished by the United States. The peasants had no option but to migrate to forested hillsides too steep to be of interest to oligarchs and foreign companies who had seized the bottom lands. Year after year the peasants tried to ward off starvation, raising subsistence crops on slopes so extreme that sometimes, in photographs from El Salvador, one comes across a peasant working his land while tied to a stake, so he won't sip. In such manner the trees got cut down and the land worked and overworked, until a tropical storm would send the bare hillsides careening down in deadly mudslides.

Tens of thousands of other peasant families, forced off the good land, moved into Managua or Tegucigalpa or other towns and cities. The consequent shanty towns burgeoned along river banks, on precarious flood basins where at least the inhabitants had access to water. As with the degraded hillsides, these shanty towns were deathtraps, awaiting the inevitable.

So, for years now, those worn hillsides and floodplains through Central America have been awaiting Mitch.... Over 4.5 million acres of degraded land currently under agricultural use in Central America are in need of immediate reforestation. In the highland regions of El Salvador and Guatemala the land is in even sorrier shape than in Honduras and Nicaragua before the onslaught of Hurricane Mitch. The only way forward is for the peasants to be given good agricultural land and adequate financial resources.

Humans caused the disaster just as humans made sure that the governments of Nicaragua and Honduras were incapable of responding to the catastrophe. Peter Rosset, of Food First and co-author of the newly revised World Hunger: Twelve Myths, stresses to us that "after a decade of ‘structural adjustment' imposed by the World Bank, the IMF and USAID, these governments are hollow shells, mutilated by enforced cutbacks. Comes a hurricane and how can you begin evacuation if there's no money for gasoline, no vehicles, skeleton staffs, no vaccines, not even the ability to stockpile drinking water How can you battle epidemics when the ministries of health have been decimated? How can you rebuild when the ministries of work have been similarly cut back?

These comments were amplified by Stephen Hellinger of Development Group for Alternative Policies, (NYT, 12/7/98):

Aid and debt relief have come with a hefty stipulation virtually everywhere they have been provided in recent years: the receiving countries have been required to adopt "structural adjustment" policies. Acting as a cartel, global financial institutions, donor governments and commercial banks have made countries restructure their economies to benefit foreign investors rather than their own citizens....

Imposing more of the same on Nicaragua and Honduras now would only set their economies back further. If the I.M.F. and the World Bank use their leverage in this crisis, as they did in Asia, to open the door even wider to foreign competitors, recovery by local producers will be made all the more difficult. If wages are pushed even lower to attract investment, people won't have enough money to restimulate local economies.

Larger safety nets aren't enough. Fundamental changes that reflect local conditions are required. Small farmers must have access to productive land and to affordable credit. Wages must be high enough to support a family. A trade policy that enables local producers to compete with foreign goods and investors is critical.

See other articles from this issue: #080 January - February - 1999