January 28, 2010

Paul Susman
Paul Susman, professor of geography.

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Welcome again to "Ask the Experts," a regular web feature that highlights the expertise of various Bucknellians in a range of topics related to current news events and other timely subjects. || Bucknell Haiti Relief Efforts || Ask the Experts archive

This week, we asked geography Professor Paul Susman, who has been part of a 10-year service-learning program to help survivors of Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua, to talk about the recovery efforts following the recent earthquake in Haiti. Susman's research focuses on the successes and failures of worker-owned cooperatives in Nicaragua, which is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere next to Haiti.

Q: You teach a course, Grassroots Development: Nicaragua, which examines efforts among survivors of Hurricane Mitch to rebuild their livelihood through sustainable businesses. The devastating hurricane hit Nicaragua in 1998, but the recovery continues. What are some of the lessons that may be learned from these experiences and how might they apply to the recovery in Haiti?

A: The first lesson is that the recovery process is not a one-step affair but is going to be going on for years. We're talking about rebuilding lives, neighborhoods, communities and livelihood systems, and that takes years and years. It is worth noting that in the aftermath of a disaster, peoples' resourcefulness is evident as they organize themselves to survive, even in severe situations such as the aftermath of the earthquake in Managua in 1972 or now in Haiti. Somehow, this resourcefulness should be recognized and become part of the relief and recovery process. 

The second lesson is that if you don't get the community involved, the odds are you are going to reconstruct the conditions that existed before the disaster that made the population so vulnerable. But the vulnerability is likely to be greater as people have to try to make a living after having been dislocated, suffering great emotional stress and material loss, and after losing the networks of people involved in their previous livelihood system. If you don't use the opportunity for social transformation, the people are likely to end up in a worse position than they were before.

The circumstances in Nicaragua before the earthquake hit in 1972 and before Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998 are very similar to the conditions in Haiti. In both countries, there was a tremendous concentration of power in the government that was oriented toward the upper classes. If those policies don't change, and resources are not reallocated by law, the ability of the people to make a living will be extremely hampered.

Q: Developing countries such as Haiti and Nicaragua face additional challenges when natural disasters hit, with limited food supplies and resources to respond. What are some of these challenges and what can those on the outside do to help?

A: Haiti, as Nicaragua, had very few resources aimed at social services, transportation, food delivery and food stores, and health services were severely lacking before the earthquake. In both cases, there was high debt, and both experienced significant capital outflows. One of the problems both countries faced is external control of companies and debt conditions where they had to cut back on domestic social spending in order to meet their debt obligations. This is in line with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies imposed on them. While social services suffered, foreign companies took their profits out of the country. In the past, popular democratic movements were discouraged or at least not supported by the U.S. government, and they were seen by foreign companies as threats to stability. For example, Rawlings baseballs once were sewn in Haiti. When the dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier ("Baby Doc") was overthrown in 1986, Rawlings moved to Costa Rica. One lesson for those on the outside is to persuade our own government to encourage democratic processes as vital to the long term well-being of the people in Haiti. 

Q: People from around the world are making donations to help the residents of Haiti. What can they do to make their contributions more long-lasting?

A: There's the emergency relief phase and the reconstruction and recovery phases that go on for a long time. The immediate relief phase is always the one that has the greatest appeal and publicity. For Nicaragua, I try to maintain my contribution over time to organizations that are working toward long-term relief. I would give to organizations in Haiti that are encouraging in practice as well as lip service long-term recovery through local community outreach.

Q:  What is sustainable business and how may it be achieved?

A: To answer the question, 'What is sustainable business,' you have to ask what is the goal of the business or enterprise? Currently, most businesses operate under a normal profit system model and try to extract as much profit as they can. If you look at issues of cooperatives, and they are all over the world, the goal of a cooperative is to remain viable as a business but also to provide an ongoing livelihood for the workers and members of the enterprise and to establish decent working and living conditions for people working at them.

It's as important for the poor population to improve its own situation as it is for a business to be sustainable. One of the lessons from the studies I did in Nicaragua is that current world trade organizations are biased toward much bigger companies and disadvantage the small cooperatives and small enterprises often run by relatively poor people. One lesson is to insist upon fair trade instead of free trade. Right now, the U.S. policy is to force other countries to open their borders for all trade and capital. That strips countries of their abilities to protect areas and industries that they want to be viable. In the United States, we support our agriculture even though it receives tremendous subsidies in terms of tax payments in part because having our own food supply is a national security issue and an important cultural issue. There are lots of good reasons for supporting a business because you want your own food and clean water. In Haiti and Nicaragua, they need to establish an economic base, ideally where they use some of their resources for manufacturing and are able to keep some of the profits.

Q: Are co-ops or owner-operated businesses a viable option for Haitians as they seem to be for Nicaraguans?

A: For a cooperative to be viable, you have to have an enormous institutional support, government support and protection. You have to have available tax credits so there needs to be financial support, and political support has to be part of the support system for the local people. Cooperatives absolutely could be a viable option in Haiti if the government allocates resources to people, provides credit and creates regulations to protect co-ops from multinational corporate competition. A small local enterprise can rarely survive competition against a multinational on its own. In Nicaragua, the law recognizes a social goal for supporting community based cooperative businesses. It is certainly an exciting and positive way to think about how to provide employment opportunities with very few resources. The government should encourage and provide credit and protect it from giant companies.

New editions of "Ask the Experts" will appear on the Bucknell University website on most Thursdays during the fall and spring semesters and on occasion throughout the summer. Last week, Scott Meinke, associate professor of political science, talked about the State of the Union address.

If you have ideas for future questions or are a faculty or staff member who would like to participate, please contact Sam Alcorn.

To learn more about faculty and staff experts who can speak on a variety of news topics, visit Bucknell's searchable Experts Guide.

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