This article by IJDH director,Brian Concannon, was originally published on March 17, 2008.
By Brian Concannon, IJDH
On St. Patrick’s Day in America, people dress in bright green colors, get into high spirits,
and then sing sad songs about starvation and injustice. The songs do not kill the party,
because the miserable conditions that drove the partiers’ ancestors across the Atlantic are
no longer a threat in Ireland. But elsewhere, people still face the same hard choice
between exile and starvation, most notably in Haiti, just 500 miles from our shores. And
this time, we can actually do something to stop the tragedy.
Many of the saddest Irish songs recall the Great Famine of 1845-1849. By 1845 Britain
had controlled Ireland for centuries, during which the large British landowners (and a few
wealthy Irish ones) had, with government help, pushed Irish peasants into smaller and
smaller parcels. Although the Emerald Isle was a fertile country that grew more beef,
grain and other food than it needed, most of that food was grown on large estates and
exported to Britain. Irish peasants — the majority of the population — ate mostly potatoes
because that was the only crop they could grow enough of to feed their families on their
small plots. So when a fungus killed almost the entire potato crop in 1845 (and again for
the next four years), the peasants had nothing to eat.
The British government responded to the famine with measures that saved many lives,
but failed to rise to the seriousness of the calamity. Over one million people starved to
death or were killed by the diseases of hunger. More than 2 million were forced to flee
the island- to places where St. Patrick is honored today. All told, Ireland lost a quarter of
The British government’s response fell short, in part, because it rejected life-saving
measures if they conflicted with the government’s economic theories, especially the
primacy of the free market. Food distribution programs refused rations to anyone who
could theoretically buy food on the market. This included people physically able to work
but unable to find jobs in a collapsed economy, and families with any land- even a
quarter acre. The theories did not fill empty stomachs, so people not theoretically poor
enough for help starved to death while food sat undistributed in the warehouses.
Meanwhile, the potato blight did not affect other crops, including beef and grain. Ireland
continued to be a net exporter of food throughout the famine. Keeping the food in Ireland
would have saved lives, but it might have interfered with the free market. So the British
kept eating Irish beef and grain, while the Irish starved. Some Irish desperately ate their
island’s famously green grass: they were found dead, with green stains around their
A century and a half later, Ireland is now one of the wealthiest and peaceful countries in
the world, the product of an economic boom fueled by strong government investment,
especially in education and infrastructure. But in Haiti, the same combination of natural
disaster and misplaced faith in economic theory is killing people and driving others into
Haiti has been in the news lately, for people eating cookies made of salt, butter and
brown dirt to hold off starvation. Like Ireland’s Great Famine, Haiti’s hunger is part
natural disaster, but also partly man-made.
For decades, the World Bank and the Inter-America Development Bank (IDB) propped
up Haitian dictators with generous loans. The notorious “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” —
Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier– received almost half of Haiti’s current outstanding
loans. The Duvaliers used the money to buy warm fur coats and fast cars, and to fund the
brutal Tonton Macoute death squads. In return, the international community, especially
the United States, received a reliable vote against Fidel Castro in the United Nations and
the Organization of American States.
The Haitian people received very little from these loans. Since 1980, when Haiti started
receiving the Bank’s help in earnest, its per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has
shrunk by 38.3%. Haiti became the poorest country in the Americas, and one of the
hungriest countries in the world. Today, about half of school-age kids in Haiti are not in
school. Over half of all Haitians struggle to survive on $1 a day or less, and life
expectancy is in the mid-50’s. Many of those who can flee do so, including cities like
Boston and New York, that sheltered the refugees from Ireland’s famine.
The loans lavished on the Duvaliers and other dictators are now due, so Haiti’s elected
government is sending almost a million dollars every week to the well-appointed offices
of the World Bank and the IDB in Washington. Like Ireland exporting beef while people
starved, Haiti is exporting money while people die of poverty.
The World Bank and the IDB are not commercial banks. They are funded by our tax
dollars, and were established to fight poverty, not make a profit. Like the British in
Ireland, the Banks have their “relief programs” for Haiti, including programs that will
eventually forgive a portion of Haiti’s debt. But like the British response to Ireland’s
famine, the Bank programs do not rise to the seriousness of the situation.
The Banks’ programs are too late — they will not provide full relief for months, perhaps
years. The Banks started their programs in 1996, but did not admit Haiti until 2007, so
Haiti has just started jumping through the many hoops required to receive relief. Like the
British declaring the starving Irish theoretically able to work, in 2000 the World Bank
declared Haiti theoretically able to pay its debts, and therefore ineligible for its help:
“[d]espite being very poor and having a relatively significant external debt level, �. after
taking advantage of other sources of debt relief, Haiti’s debt �. will be reduced to a
The Banks’ programs are too little: they stop where the requirements of helping poor
people conflict with the requirements of the Banks’ economic theories. The Banks could
simply cancel Haiti’s debts, especially those from loans given to dictators, which would
immediately make a million dollars a week available for important government programs.
But the very institutions that gave generously to the Duvaliers, knowing how the money
was being spent, now demand “accountability” from Haiti’s democratic government
before cancelling the dictators’ debts. Accountability means, in part, that the government
has an economic plan that satisfies the Banks’ free market theories. Haiti’s plan is not yet
available, but the Banks have required other poor countries to demonstrate accountability
by slashing public health and education spending. For now, accountability means keeping
the $1 million coming every week, while the citizens of Haiti eat dirt.
The citizens of the United States could put a stop to this injustice immediately. We pay
the largest share of the Banks’ costs, and have the largest say in the Banks’ governance.
If our leaders made cancellation of Haiti’s debt a priority, the debts would be cancelled.
So this St. Patrick’s Day, as we sing about long-ago starvation and injustice in what is
now a wealthy island, let us also think about the current misery in Haiti that we can do
Human rights lawyer Brian Concannon Jr., email@example.com, directs the Institute for Justice &
Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).