Eating Dirt in Ireland and Haiti

Every musical tradition has its sad songs. One of the saddest from my own Irish tradition, The Fields of Athenry, can bring tears to your eyes - whether it is sung softly in the original folk version or shouted in the punk rock remake by Boston's Dropkick Murphys. The song begins:

By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling:'Michael, they have taken you away. For you stole Trevelyn's corn.So the young might see the morn.'Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.

On one level this is personal tragedy. A young man being deported from Ireland (to Australia), leaving his wife and young children, perhaps forever, all because he stole some food to stave off starvation. But dig deeper in the story, and personal tragedy evolves first into a natural and economic disaster. Dig even deeper, and you find an outrageous international injustice.

The song's Trevelyn is Sir Charles Edward Trevelyn, a British bureaucrat during the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1849. By 1845, Britain had controlled Ireland for centuries, and along the way British landowners (and a few wealthy Irish ones) had kept taking more and more land, pushing Irish peasants into smaller and smaller parcels. So although Ireland 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 natural disaster - a fungus that killed almost the entire potato crop in 1845 - occurred, the peasants had nothing to eat.

So they ate dirt.

Sir Charles Trevelyn was responsible for managing the British government's relief efforts during the Famine, an outrageous international injustice. The British government recognized the tragedy, and made some efforts that certainly saved lives, but the government refused to take steps to save additional lives if the steps were in conflict with its free-market economic theories.

"Trevelyn's corn" was dried corn that the British government bought from the U.S. to distribute cheaply to the hungry. In keeping with its economic principles of not interfering with the private sector, the government would only distribute the corn to people who could prove that they absolutely could not afford to buy food. That meant excluding starving people who were physically able to work, even though there were not enough jobs to go around. It meant excluding families that owned as little as a quarter acre of land, no matter how hungry they were. So although much of the corn got to the poor, and saved lives, more of it stayed in the warehouses while people who were not poor enough starved.

The relief efforts did not include one measure that would have quickly reduced the starvation: getting the perfectly good food that was not touched by the potato fungus in Ireland to the Irish. Trevelyn refused to do this on the grounds that government involvement would disrupt the actions of the free market. He announced that "the judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson." He welcomed the famine as a "mechanism for reducing surplus population." So Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout the famine: the British kept eating Irish beef and grain, while the Irish ate Irish dirt.

Trevelyn's free market "mechanism" for reducing Ireland's population worked. One million people were reduced to their graves, starved to death or killed by the diseases of hunger. Another two million were forced to flee the island - to Boston, New York, England, wherever they could go. Ireland lost over a quarter of its population.

There is a memorial to the Irish Famine at Washington and School streets in downtown Boston, made up of two bronze statues. One statue portrays a starving family in Ireland, miserable, thin, in tattered clothes. The other portrays an Irish family in Boston, still poor, but adequately fed and clothed.

The facial features of the people in the Memorial are from Ireland, but the clothes, bodies and misery of the starving family could be from today's Haiti. Because in Haiti in 2008, people are eating dirt.

Last month, newspapers across the U.S. - including this one - carried stories about people in Cite Soleil eating cookies made of salt, butter, and dirt. The stories were reported as a personal tragedy (a mother unable to feed her infant son), then dug deep enough to explain the natural and economic disasters (hurricanes, high fuel prices).

But the stories did not dig deep enough to uncover the outrageous international injustice. For decades, leaders not chosen by the Haitian people were given loans by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). 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 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 Organization of American States. The Haitian people received very little.

The loans are now due, so Haiti is sending almost a million dollars every week to the well-appointed offices of the World Bank and the IDB in Washington. While Haiti's government is exporting money, Haiti's citizens are eating dirt because they do not have enough money. About half of school age kids in Haiti are not in school, because there are no public schools for them and their parents cannot afford private school fees. Over half of all Haitians struggle to survive on $1 a day or less. Many of those who can flee do so, to Boston, New York, Miami, and other places.

The World Bank and IDB, like Trevelyn's office, were actually set up to fight poverty. Unlike ordinary banks, they do not exist to make profits, but in the World Bank's words, are "working for a world free of poverty." Like Trevelyn in Ireland, the bank bureaucrats understand they are faced with a humanitarian disaster, and have their "relief programs" to fight it, 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 need. They are too late - they will not provide relief for months, perhaps years. They are too little - they stop where the requirements of helping poor people conflict with the requirements of the bureaucrats' economic theories. In the meantime, just as Ireland exported food during a famine, Haiti will keep exporting money. So more Haitians will die of the diseases of hunger, and more children will grow older without going to school.

One of the theories that prevent the banks from just cancelling Haiti's unjust debt is the notion that Haiti's elected government needs to prove that it is "accountable." The banks, which gave generously to the Duvaliers knowing how the money was being spent, now require Haiti's government to demonstrate that it has an economic plan that satisfies the bank's free market theories. Haiti's plan is not yet available, but the banks have required other poor countries to demonstrate their "accountability" by slashing public health and education spending. For now, accountability means keeping the $1 million coming every week.

Some members of the U.S. House of Representatives understand the injustice behind Haiti's dirt cookies, and have taken action. They know that the United States has the largest percentage of votes in both the World Bank and IDB, and could stop Haiti's loan payments if it wanted to. So in mid-February, they asked their colleagues to sign on to a letter urging the U.S. Treasury Department to arrange the immediate suspension of all debt payments from Haiti. There is also a Haiti Debt Cancellation resolution in the House, House Resolution 241, that seeks to permanently cancel Haiti's IDB and World Bank debts.

As of press time, 44 members of the House had signed onto the letter, and 66 members had co-sponsored House Resolution 241. Massachusetts Representatives William Delahunt, James McGovern, and John Olver had signed onto both, and Representative Barney Frank joined the letter. That's a good start, but is not nearly enough to eliminate demand for dirt cookies in Cite Soleil.

Two Massachusetts representatives with the most Haitian-Americans - Rep. Michael Capuano (Cambridge, Somerville, Mattapan, parts of Dorchester; Rep. Steven Lynch parts of Dorchester, Randolph, Brockton) - signed on to the resolution.

In The Fields of Athenry, Michael calls out his final words to his wife Mary:

Against the famine and the CrownI rebelled, they cut me down -Now you must raise our child with dignity.

If his children survived, Michael's wish would have eventually come true. Athenry, Ireland, is now a dignified tourist destination and commuter town, known for its quaint medieval buildings and ruins. People do not flee Athenry anymore, or steal corn to feed their children. Instead, people move there for jobs and opportunity - the latest census classifies one in five Athenry residents as "not Irish."

Ireland itself, after centuries of being one of the poorest nations in Western Europe, is now one of the wealthiest and most peaceful countries in the world, the product of an economic boom fueled by strong government investment, especially in education and infrastructure.

The tragedy of Ireland's population forced to flee the homeland in order to eat also became a blessing. Once established, especially in Boston, but also in New York, Chicago and many other places, the Irish organized politically. They organized for their rights as Irish-Americans, but they also told their elected representatives to support just U.S. policies toward their home country. Those policies have played a strong role in Ireland's current prosperity.

The children of Michel and Marie deserve the same chance at dignity and prosperity that the children of Michael and Mary received. The international community needs to let Haiti's government invest in its people, their education, and the infrastructure, rather than in payments to wealthy banks. For that to happen, Haitian-Americans in the U.S. will need to engage with their elected representatives just as the Irish-Americans did.

Human rights lawyer Brian Concannon Jr., brian@ijdh.org, directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). More information on the fight to relieve Haiti's burden of debt can be found on IJDH's website, HaitiJustice.org.