Kim Lamberty: Racism, Colonialism and Haiti

Below is the text version of a presentation by Quixote Center Executive Director Kim Lamberty, DMin upon receiving Pax Christi’s 14th Annual Peacemaker Award, November 7, 2021. A video of the presentation is below.

Thank you. I have worked with many of you for a long time and it is special to be recognized by one’s peers and communities.  Thanks also to each of you present this evening –I am feeling the love. 

Tonight I will look briefly at a history of racism and colonialism through the lens of Haiti and Haiti’s history.  The idea is in part to refocus on Haiti, given the current situation of extreme violence, food insecurity, vulnerability. In talking about Haiti I am also going to talk about the ways in which a racist, colonial economic system is still at play, and offer some thoughts about what we can be doing differently.

Brief narrative of Haiti’s history 

In 1492, Columbus landed on the island known as Haiti by the indigenous Taino population, and promptly renamed it Hispaniola.  He established the first Spanish settlement there, and after successive Spanish settlements, within 100 years the indigenous population had been destroyed. By the late 1600s, the half of the island that is known as Haiti had been ceded to the French, who turned it into a giant coffee and sugar plantation. At its peak, half of the Atlantic slave trade went to Haiti. This plantation economy depended on the deforestation of high-value trees, extreme violence toward the people who they had enslaved, and forced conversion to Catholicism. By the time of the Haitian revolution, the French side of the island was the world’s top producer of coffee and sugar and France’s most profitable colony. One out of every 8 people in France derived their living from this trade, which was entirely dependent on the enslavement of Africans.

Analogous stories happened in other European colonies. Haiti was one of the most profitable, but the other European countries also earned extraordinary profits through colonizing, pilfering, and enslaving Africans and indigenous. This is where European wealth came from, the same wealth that, for example, provided funding for religious orders and missionary work. 

The Haitian revolution began as a slave rebellion that ultimately defeated Napoleon’s army to form the first Black republic in the Western Hemisphere in 1804.  Thomas Jefferson responded by imposing a trade embargo, and the United States refused to recognize Haiti until 1862. France cut off all trade until the Haitian government agreed to pay them reparations for lost  “human and territorial” property. Haitian went from one of the most profitable territories in the world to a situation of destitution from which it has not recovered. There is much more to the story, such as US occupation, US support for dictators, US interference in democratic elections, US treatment of migrants fleeing an untenable situation, that continued to oppress the people of Haiti over the ensuing decades and centuries.  This is not unlike our history in other Latin American countries, many of whom also have not recovered from what was done to them during the colonial period.

The Poverty-Industrial Complex

European colonialism was based in an ideology of white supremacy and an economic system that enriched some people at the expense of vast forced labor—because if they had to pay people, they would not have gotten nearly so rich. One can draw parallels to today…because paying substandard wages, or paying low prices for natural resources from vulnerable countries, still makes some people very rich and others very poor. So now let’s jump ahead to today, a situation where Haitians frequently refer to their own country as the Republic of NGOs. I call it the poverty-industrial complex.

Economically vulnerable countries, such as Haiti, are also home to many of the natural resources required to sustain the lifestyles of wealthier countries. Coffee is one of them, and hopefully by the end of this conversation, you will see why I got into the coffee business. Obviously there are many other commodities that one could focus on. 

The economic system that we are all functioning in is focused on maximizing shareholder wealth. Companies buy natural resources, or the labor it takes to produce their product, at the lowest possible amount they possibly can, and sell the finished product for the highest possible amount they can, keeping the profits from those sales for themselves, and their shareholders, which are often one and the same. They get cheap labor and resources from vulnerable communities and countries who are kept in a permanent state of need because they are never paid enough to live on. Consumers—that is you and me—are complicit in this system because we are conditioned to pay the lowest amount we possibly can for the goods that we consume, often without doing the work to understand the impact on labor, as well as on producers, in vulnerable countries. It also takes an environmental toll because resources are extracted in the cheapest manner possible without regard to impact on the planet.

Obviously there are exceptions, both on the industry side and on the consumption side. But by and large this is what we are dealing with in terms of how wealth is generated. From profits.

The NGOs come in to mop up the mess in poor countries and communities, trying to bridge the gap between what people are getting paid for goods and services, and what they actually need to live on. NGOs raise money from the exact same people—the wealthy—in other words, from many of the same people who are profiting off of poverty. There is a lot of money to be made off of poverty, which is why we still have it.

Let’s take the coffee industry. Coffee is a top export from economically vulnerable countries, so it is worth looking at. It impacts 25 million small scale growers, or around 100 million people total, although most coffee is grown on large plantations owned by wealthy landholders. The current international price for coffee is between 2 and 3 bucks per pound, which is actually quite high by historical standards. In most cases, that money goes to a plantation owner, who pays very low wages (or none at all) to hired labor for what is very difficult work. We also know that there is slave labor in the coffee supply chain, in particular in Brazil, which is the top global exporter of coffee. In some cases, when small farmers have formed cooperatives, they get a larger portion of that money, but a chunk of it still goes to the coop to pay for its own expenses and salaries. And how much do you pay for a pound of coffee? Studies have shown that the bulk of the income from coffee sales goes to large roasters, who are the ones making the profits.

The people making the profits give from their excess to NGOs, who then use a substantial amount of that money to pay their own salaries, and to create the infrastructure needed to deliver aid. This means paying for offices, trucks, warehouses, computers—etc., in addition to their own salaries, which are often very substantial.  It is really hard to find information about how much actual cash gets into the hands of people in need, because organizations include their own salaries and infrastructure in their reported “program costs.” What would happen if we just took all that money and gave it to people in need? People know what to do with it. Instead, we have developed a jobs-creation program for people such as myself. It is an industry that depends on poverty to survive, and a whole lot of jobs are at stake. Many of them are connected to churches.

I have heard numerous Haitians point this out: Money that gets raised for Haiti does not go to Haiti—it goes to aid workers. My question is, how is the poverty industrial complex that I am describing not still colonialism? 

The Cost of Colonialism

People kept in a permanent state of need will take action to support and protect themselves and their families. If they have the opportunity, they will migrate to a place where they think they have a better chance of making a living—and so we are seeing the huge cost of the poverty-industrial complex at our borders, and at borders around the globe. What’s happening at the US-Mexico border is minuscule compared to what is happening in Africa, home to the largest refugee camps in the world. 

Economically vulnerable people also join armed groups as a way to resolve their lives. In Colombia, I had conversations with people who simply said that young people are joining armed groups because they have no other economic opportunity. Studies have been done that confirm that this dynamic exists elsewhere: young people in particular will join armed groups if they think they do not have other options for making a living. This is just as true in the US as it is in Haiti, Colombia, Palestine, and Guatemala.

Many of our interventions into this dynamic take place in order to alleviate the damage done without addressing the root cause of the damage. We have the best of intentions when we work to change US immigration policy, or when we provide support for migrant camps, or we oppose the sale of weapons, or we do gang intervention work. And obviously, we have to do those things, and it’s not likely that these symptoms of a much larger problem are going away any time soon. 

According to the Gospel, “The poor you will always have with you.” (Matthew 26:11) The poor we will always have with us because there will always be natural disasters, or pandemics, or other catastrophes that befall us—it is the human condition. We live in a state of insecurity, and there will always be a need for a selfless response to those in need. So I’m not saying that all aid is bad, and during my time at CRS I saw some great examples of aid at work. But the conditions we see right now—extreme endemic poverty in places like Haiti, widespread food insecurity, violence, and a global migration crisis—these things do not always have to be with us. 

In order for those things to not always be with us, we need to get beyond addressing the symptoms, and get to the actual causes. If you want peace, work for justice! Paul VI was right—he just didn’t come up with the right or complete remedy. At the end of Populorum Progressio he advised everyone to contribute to the aid organizations!

Frequently, when we say we are addressing the root cause what we are actually doing is shoring up the poverty-industrial complex, rather than focusing on dismantling the systems and structures that will lead to significantly increased income generation for vulnerable families and communities. In other words, it’s not good enough to develop an industrial campus in northern Haiti—what the Clintons did—if the jobs don’t pay well enough to live on and local farmers are displaced. It’s not enough to develop a coffee program in a vulnerable community if all the growers get is a dollar or two dollars a pound—because that helps the roasters in the US but does not bring producers out of poverty. I don’t even like using the term “root cause” anymore, because it has been co-opted.

People are poor because they don’t have enough money, or assets to generate money. This is not rocket science. If society wanted to fix this, it would. The problem is that really fixing it would require economic sacrifice on the part of the wealthy. 

What Justice Looks Like

We started Just Haiti to address these economic justice issues. The organization is run by an all-volunteer team of 9 people. Each of us has another job, and each of us plays a significant role in Just Haiti operations.  We pay the highest price for green coffee in the industry, and all profits from sales go to the growers—because as we noted earlier, wealth is generated from profits. Our producers tell us that they use the profits to pay school fees for their kids, to cover unexpected medical expenses, to plant food crops, or to grow their coffee business. Our work is another level of ethics than what is practiced by most NGOs, even the most progressive ones.

People tell me it is unsustainable, and I say really? What is it actually and concretely going to take for us to reverse and dismantle a racist, colonial economic system? What we are doing at Just Haiti is at least part of what it is going to take, because what we are doing is actually dismantling it. What would happen if everyone did it? And a shout out to the Just Haiti board, a wonderful community of volunteers that it is my privilege to work with. They are making many personal sacrifices –it is a lot of work to run the organization and we do it together. Community is what makes this work fun as well as sustainable, and we have developed a fabulous community over the years. And by the way, you can buy our coffee at justhaiti.org.

The Quixote Center, where I just took over as executive director, is engaging in some similar cutting edge work in another part of Haiti which does not involve coffee or exports but does involve agricultural development. I just started as part of the Quixote Center community, but my expectation is that it will be just as much fun and sustaining.

I’m sure that many of you already buy fair trade products. Unfortunately, not all fair trade is alike. If your favorite fair trade company advertises that it is using its profits to install a water system in its producer communities, then they are also part of the poverty-industrial complex. Why aren’t they paying their growers enough so that the community can purchase and maintain its own water system? So buy fair trade—it is a huge step in the right direction—but buy it with a discerning eye and ask questions about how the proceeds are used. 

There are other things we can do that most of you already know about: support local farmers, purchase from black and brown-owned businesses, do business with registered B Corps. I invite each one of us has to be very intentional about this as an act of anti-racism, as violence prevention, and as a means to dismantle an unjust economic system. 

It’s not enough, unfortunately. The vast majority of CEOs are never going to give up their lucrative salaries for the sake of a better standard of living for workers and producers, whether in the US or elsewhere. It can, however, be addressed through the tax code. Right now, we have a tax system that favors the wealthy because of the low rates levied against high income and against capital gains, which come from stock sales. The incentive is to collect greater and greater income, especially through stock, because it isn’t taxed all that much. De-incentivize it through the tax code by increasing tax rates on the wealthy. Getting involved in advocacy on tax as well as wage issues is also a part of the solution. 

 There are lots of other ideas and suggestions that I am sure many of you could add. The point I want to leave you with is that I think the cutting-edge work right now is the economic system. While many folks in wealthy countries are doing well, the gap between rich and poor has gotten astronomical in the last few decades. And the point of talking about Just Haiti is to say that there are concrete things we can do to dismantle this system. 

Luann Mostello told me she hoped my presentation would spark interest in engagement with Haiti, and I hope that, too. And at the same time, as already noted, Haiti has way too many NGO actors from the United States already. My perspective on this is that instead of establishing more siloed projects, we do a better job in Haiti working in partnership, pooling our resources, to support cutting-edge work that dismantles an unjust, oppressive economic system. Through partnerships, Just Haiti has worked to replicate our model, with some great successes and some failures as well. We learn from our failures and do better the next time. I would really like to replicate the Quixote Center’s work in other communities as well. I have been the long-term consultant for a sisters of Notre Dame deNamur project in Les Cayes that established a local bakery—I would like to see that project replicated. Given the violence, insecurity, and vulnerability to natural disasters, Haiti remains a challenging place to work. And at the same time, given the history of racism, colonialism, and exploitation on the part of the US, it seems to me that Haiti is exactly where we belong.

Comments (1)

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    celeste kearney

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    I just sent a message about your efforts in Nicaragua. I ask the same about your efforts in Haiti. the issues are different, I realize. it’s frustrating, trying to find the best place/places to support.

    Reply

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