Naomi Klein Sees Exploitation in Rescue Missions

Bottom feeders follow closely on the heels of disaster. After Hurricane Katrina, private security contractors landed in New Orleans, hired to guard against looters. After the Indian Ocean tsunami, governments in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, and the Maldives pushed aside coastal villages to make way for resort developers. That kind of profiteering is standard fare. But is it organized? That's what author Naomi Klein says in her book The Shock Doctrine, arguing that "disaster capitalists" take advantage of post-crisis chaos to push through a set of free-market reforms that further their own interests, rather than those of the victims. Is that the case in Haiti right now, even as rescue operations are still underway? NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul chatted with Klein about what she—and the 20,000 people who have already joined the No Shock Doctrine for Haiti group on Facebook—are watching out for this time around. Excerpts:

You've noted in Shock Doctrine how disasters like this earthquake are perfect opportunities for so-called disaster capitalists to move in and profit. Are you seeing evidence of that so far in Haiti?
The shock doctrine is the use of disasters to avoid democracy—using the state of dislocation following a disaster to say that people aren't able to make decisions, so someone else needs to do it for them. But that means policies are pushed through very quickly—unpopular policies that were often on a wish list for elites anyway, but that can suddenly be implemented because people are either traumatized or literally wiped out. In the case of Haiti, the Heritage Foundation didn't even wait 24 hours before they called for the Obama administration to reform Haiti's economy. They also suggested that George W. Bush be appointed and, lo and behold, he was appointed the next day. So they appear to have an audience.

Wait, isn't that standard—
Right, but that idea was first floated on the Heritage Foundation Web site.

—that he's appointed alongside President Clinton?
It's unclear who Bill Clinton is working for. Is it the U.N., the Obama administration, his own foundation? We've already heard talk of a Marshall Plan for Haiti—by Haiti's largest foreign investor, a cell-phone company, at a meeting in Florida with Bill Clinton. Now, they may have very good plans. But the point is that Haitians are not being included in the planning.

Wouldn't cell-phone service be important right away? Lack of communication is a big problem in the relief effort.
Absolutely. When it comes to distributing aid, speed is of the essence. But it's entirely inappropriate to be setting priorities that Haitians will have to live with for decades, like with this Marshall Plan. When it comes to rebuilding, speed can be very damaging—and can be an excuse for avoiding citizen participation. If there's anything we know from New Orleans and Iraq, there needs to be transparency. I don't usually do this, but I'll quote John McCain: early on with Iraq, he said that Iraq is a big pot of honey and there are a lot of flies. Right now, Haiti is the pot of honey. Billions of dollars are going to be allocated for reconstruction. If we want to make sure that whatever gets built is what Haitians want built, then let's lay down that principle now. Once contracts are handed out, there's no going back.

Are you actually seeing contracts being handed out already? It's so early.
There's a huge amount of lobbying going on already. But there are really core questions about what Haiti's postquake economy should look like. So, for example, the garment sector wants the new economy to give them shiny new export zones, tax breaks, public money to rebuild their factories—but we also know that they don't pay taxes that build Haiti's public sector, which is part of what deepened this disaster.

In order for any of these big decisions to be truly representative of Haitian desires, wouldn't they need to be made after democratic elections? Given the damage, it seems like that would be a long way off.
That should be built into the cost of reconstruction. We're months away from any actual rebuilding, so there's no need to hand out contracts now. In fact, I think there should be a freeze on contracts until there are mechanisms in place to allow Haitians to participate in a national reconstruction plan. We're talking about designing a country. It isn't about rebuilding it exactly as it was, because everyone would agree that's unacceptable.

How can reconstruction be done without replicating the existing power structures, which have been so problematic for so long?
There should be line items for community-development plans, even referendums. And no contract should be handed out without guarantees that the work will be done by Haitians, at a living wage. People who are donating money right now should be asking a lot of questions about how their money is being spent.

Can you give an example of a country that has managed a disaster economy well?
The community-based responses to the tsunami in Thailand were amazing. Communities set up councils, then worked with architects and planners who actually asked them they wanted their own communities to look like. So often, there's an assumption that a 22-year-old from the Kennedy School knows more about what's best for a country than someone in their 60s who's lived there his entire life. But that's an infantalization of a country.

You've noted that the relief effort so far has been overly militarized. Given that the military is responsible for coordinating much of the aid, why do you think that's inappropriate?
It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every day that people are not receiving food, it becomes harder to maintain order. What we're hearing from U.N. and aid agencies is that they're afraid of going out without military escort. And what we just saw during the quake is that some foreign investors had their own parallel privatized disaster infrastructure. Citigroup sent in private-security SWAT teams equipped with medical supplies and satellite phones to save their people, but not their neighbors. That's dehumanizing. Aid should be prioritized over security. Any aid agency that's afraid of Haitians should get out of Haiti.