Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

EUROPE/HAITI: Singing for the Poor

Jeb Sprague*

MANCHESTER, Nov 1 2007 (IPS) - The Arcade Fire, a rock band based in Quebec in Canada, has made raising awareness and money for Haiti&#39s most disadvantaged its top priority.

Zanmi Lasante&#39s 13th forum Sante ak Dwa Moun. Credit: Wadner Pierre

Zanmi Lasante's 13th forum Sante ak Dwa Moun. Credit: Wadner Pierre

Last weekend the band played to the largest indoor audience of their career, estimated at over 14,000, at the Manchester Evening News Arena.

Concert-goers were provided leaflets titled &#39Haïti mon pays. Wounded mother I&#39ll never see&#39 which detailed the group&#39s support for the non-profit healthcare organisation Partners In Health (PIH) and its Zanmi Lasante healthcare centres in Haiti.

PIH, since it was founded by Dr Paul Farmer, Thomas J. White and Todd McCormack in 1987, has promoted a uniquely sovereign social agenda for the people and the public institutions it works with. While providing free healthcare to patients, PIH has worked with Haiti&#39s governments to promote sustainable public healthcare services.

The Arcade Fire&#39s initial inspiration to work for social justice in Haiti appears to have come from memories of suffering under the Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorship (1971-86) by the band&#39s co-founder Régine Chassagne&#39s family.

The lyrics in French in one of their songs go,"Mes cousins jamais nés hantent les nuits de Duvalier. Rien n&#39arrete nos esprits (My cousins never born haunt the nights of Duvalier. Nothing arrests our minds)." The song ends in English with "Guns can&#39t kill what soldiers can&#39t see."

The success of the band&#39s festive live performances and two studio albums, Funeral and Neon Bible, the last of which entered the U.S. Billboard Music Charts at number two, has allowed the band to bring a rarely discussed message to crowds across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

"The reason that we find Partners In Health so inspiring is that their mission is not one based on simple charity or missionary goodwill, but on standing with the poorest people in Haiti where they live, and serving them as they would a loved one," says the group in a statement.

Earlier this year during a live performance on Saturday Night Live on the U.S. television channel NBC, the words "sak vide pa kanpe" (a Haitian proverb meaning "the empty sack cannot stand up") were written in duct tape across co-founder Win Butler&#39s guitar. They referred to the historically undermining factors that affect Haiti, creating a cycle of poverty and ecological disaster.

Speaking between two songs at the Manchester Evening News Arena, Butler – lead vocalist for the Arcade Fire – explained how "just the surcharge (one pound, or two dollars) from tonight will impact a whole generation of people" in the Plateau Central of Haiti. He estimated that 30,000 dollars had been collected in just the one night&#39s performance.

As the riff of a new song began to build, he raised his voice. "Now if only the U.S. would stop (expletive) messing with Haiti."

Throughout 2001-2003 Haiti&#39s Plateau Central, the area in which PIH is most active, was the site of a violent campaign led by members of Haiti&#39s ex-military, many of whom had at one point received training from the U.S.

A new human rights report by the Association des Universitaires Motivés Pour Une Haïti Des Droits (AUMOHD) documents some of the violence with direct testimonials from local residents.

An earlier report by the Mouvement Pour Le Developpement du Plateau Central (MODEPC) titled &#39Massacres in the Central Plateau, Belladère, Lascahobas&#39 provides a chronological overview of the attacks.

Findings from an international tribunal on Haiti in 2005, set up by U.S. activists and attorneys, also documented a number of atrocities carried out by the ex-military in the region.

In early May 2003 the ex-military went so far as to launch an assault on Haiti&#39s main Péligre hydroelectric dam. In that operation it also stole one of the few local ambulances, and kidnapped several employees from a local hospital, run in part by PIH.

The Haitian government, with little police and resources, was hard pressed to respond to attacks by the gunmen.

Throughout the late 1990s, an increasing amount of vital aid meant for Haiti&#39s government was held up by international financial institutions, many headquartered in Washington D.C.

By 2001, with the administration of President George W. Bush in office, the U.S. treasury department along with USAID and the U.S. State Department funded International Republican Institute (IRI) advocated a full embargo on aid to Haiti&#39s democratically elected government, using the pretext of eight disputed parliamentary seats.

A comparison of Haitian national government budgets from these years shows that the embargo led to a cut off of what, from 2001 to early 2004, should have amounted to between at least 40 and 55 percent of the Haitian government&#39s budget.

Late last year the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Centre (RFK) brought a lawsuit against the U.S. treasury department to reveal records of its role in suspending the loans destined for vital public health projects.

The suit refers to former U.S. executive director of the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) Lawrence Harrington who on April 6, 2001 sent a letter to then IDB president Enrique V. Iglesias requesting that loans worth 145.9 million dollars, meant to improve water, sanitation, health, rural roads, and education in Haiti, not be disbursed.

The IDB halted the loans even though they were disbursable according to the IDB&#39s own rules, and although its charter prohibits political interference with loans. The RFK centre points out that "the U.S. executive director (at the IDB) reports directly to the treasury department."

In September of this year, Zanmi Lasante held its 13th forum Sante ak Dwa Moun, well attended by Haitian teachers, students, doctors and healthcare workers. The gathering of the "Zanmi Lasante family" focused its discussion on the issue of women&#39s health. Dr. Gabriel Timothé, Haiti&#39s surgeon-general, opened the conference.

NGOs are often criticised for spending large percentages of their budgets outside of the countries they intend to work in. However, Zanmi Lasante/PIH projects contribute a high amount of the donations they receive, with 94 cents of every dollar, directly to projects, medicines, and their clinics&#39 needs on the ground.

*Jeb Sprague contributes to

Republish | | Print |