In the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake that is believed to have killed more than 150,000 people, a call is growing for more long-term, sustainable solutions, such as debt relief.
The Caribbean island nation, which suffers from a legacy of political unrest, environmental devastation, and financial ruin, has staggered under the weight of debt since it won independence from France more than 200 years ago.
Today, the poverty-stricken nation of some 9 million people is more than $1 billion in debt, and relief organizations and some government leaders are pushing for solutions that allow Haitians to focus on “recovery, not repayment.”
The World Council of Churches and other groups have pushed for aid to come in the form of grants, not loans, so that Haitians can move forward with rebuilding their country without shouldering ever more debt. Canada’s more than $100 million in assistance, for example, comes from grants; Canada canceled Haiti’s debt last fall. In late January, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez canceled Haiti’s $295 million debt to Petrocaribe, Venezuela’s regional energy distributor.
Humanitarian aid was disorganized and debt relief contentious—and ultimately, limited— after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Nick Dearden, director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, appealed to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and governments around the world to avoid the “half measures” that followed the tsunami and to pursue debt cancellation.
Robert Glasser, international secretary general of CARE, said help needs to extend beyond the immediate emergency to reconstruction. He urged donors to back not only debt relief but policies and programs that are “pro-poor.” “This is not the first, nor will it be the last natural disaster to hit Haiti,” said Glasser. “But it is our chance as a community to relieve the country from a terrible debt burden and help Haitians build a new future on a new foundation of equitable development.”
—Kim Eckart is associate editor at YES! Magazine.
- Beverly Bells Blogs from Haiti: After 30 years working for democracy, women’s rights, and economic justice in Haiti, Beverly Bell is documenting the impact of the earthquake on Haiti's grassroots movements.
- A Victory for Haiti: How an international, grassroots mobilization helped spur the G7's decision to cancel Haiti's onerous foreign debt.
- Debt Relief: The Results Are In: Debt relief has allowed poor nations to pay for schools and health care instead of loan interest.
“Haiti isn’t doomed ... If we rally around them now and support them in the right way, the Haitian people can reclaim their destiny.”
Former President Bill Clinton,
U.N. special envoy to Haiti, on relief efforts following the January earthquake
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