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The Press editorializes about some West Michigan connections to Haiti

January 23, 2010

The local news media continues to report on local humanitarian responses to the crisis in Haiti and that certainly says something about people’s capacity to do good. Anytime people raise money for emergency relief efforts it has the possibility of relieving someone’s suffering.

However, along with humanitarian relief comes the responsibility to understand the historical and political context of the current crisis in Haiti, particularly when it comes to US policy.

Today the Grand Rapids Press has an interesting editorial entitled “From here to Haiti.” The editorial points out the positive response from West Michigan to the crisis in Haiti, most notably the Haitian orphans who were brought to town with the help of Amway corporate jets. Bethany Christian Services is the agency heading up this adoption project.

Then the Press article highlights some local longstanding West Michigan/Haiti partnerships that were initiated by the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, an Aquinas College education project and a recent (2008) Cornerstone University anti-poverty project.

The editorial concludes with more praises for West Michigan’s commitment to philanthropy and this final paragraph:

“It’s been uplifting to see this country lead the world in the rush to ease Haiti’s suffering during an unfathomable tragedy. But for Haiti to have a better tomorrow, the world will need to be there next month, next year, and next decade. Because of our ties and commitment, West Michigan must resolve to help ourselves, as well as our nation and our world, remember and remain.”

While I agree in general with this statement it ignores two things. First, it ignores some of the West Michigan connections that have not been a positive influence on Haiti. In the 1990s the children’s clothing manufacturer H.H. Cutler closed down their manufacturing operation in West Michigan and moved much of it to Haiti, since labor costs were a fraction of what they are here.

The labor conditions in Haiti have been well documented by groups like the National Labor Committee, which has classified the labor conditions there as sweatshops conditions. Another local connection is with the Haiti Baptist Mission based in Rockford, Michigan. In her book, The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, author Amy Wilentz talks about the corrupt practices of the religious leaders from the Haiti Baptist Mission working in Haiti.

These are just a few examples, so while I salute the current humanitarian efforts from West Michigan in support of Haitians that the Grand Rapids Press acknowledges it does a disservice to its readers to not include local organizations that have contributed to Haiti’s ongoing poverty.

Independent News Coverage of Haiti

The second thing that the Press editorial ignores is the role that current US media coverage of the crisis in Haiti plays in terms of the public understanding of this crisis.

Much of the coverage, as we already have noted, has little historical context of the US relationship to Haiti or the motives behind this country’s policy in the small Caribbean country. In the US, some of the best coverage of what is going on in Haiti has come from Democracy Now!, which has sent a news team to that country for daily reports.

Independent reporter Jeremy Scahill has also been writing about Haiti, particularly what role private security forces are playing in “relief” work. Scahill reported on this phenomenon after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and is now uncovering similar patterns in Haiti.

A recent article by author Nikolas Kozloff points out that the news coverage coming from Latin America and the Middle East is much different that that of the US in their coverage of Haiti. Kozloff says, “Watch the U.S. media and its coverage of the crisis in Haiti, and you get the impression that Washington is a benevolent power doing its utmost to help with emergency relief in the Caribbean island nation. But tune into al-Jazeera English or South American news network Telesur and you come away with a very different view.”

Kozloff has a link to this excellent story by al-Jazeera. When watching this story think about how it compares to US-based news reporting.

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