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To Haiti, With Love, From Thailand

It was rather naughty if the Bangkok Post to list Thailand’s initial offer of $20,000 in emergency relief to Haiti directly underneath the $50,000 that Cambodia was giving, both dwarfed by the $1 million from Indonesia. This was hitting the Foreign Ministry, who authorized the payment, right where it hurts – in their image.

As if those dastardly Cambodians hadn’t done enough damage to this country, they go and show us up by offering two and half times what we pledge. And since there’s far more Thais than Cambodians, that works out to 10 times more per citizen. And if you bring in GDP per capita, where Thailand’s is more than 4 times greater than Cambodians, the Foreign Ministry was left with some serious egg on its face.

Thailand was giving 10 times less per person than Cambodians who are more than 4 times poorer.

It has now been explained that $20,000 was the maximum allowed by regulations without cabinet authorization. It was just that the Foreign Minister had decided to wait for the next cabinet meeting to increase the level of emergency aid. But doesn’t ‘emergency’ sort of mean ‘can’t wait’?

Thailand is now giving $100,000. According to the UN, the number of ‘retrieved bodies’ (counted and buried, many in mass graves) has passed 70,000, so this means that Thailand’s aid has risen from less than 30 cents per corpse to something more than a dollar, though with the death toll mounting by the day, it may not be very much more.

But this seems to being dwarfed by the generosity of the Thai public, who have a number of ways of donating. Including a bank account run by the Foreign Ministry. Now it’s not clear to me why we need this when there is already a government account, and I am even more puzzled by the account name.

While you can deposit money in the government account with a name that can be translated as ‘Thai People’s Help for Victims in Haiti’, the Foreign Ministry account is simply called ‘Foreign Ministry’.

Now I’m sure someone in their accounts department is keeping track of every satang, but I think we would like assurances that donations for Haiti earthquake victims don’t get mixed up with the ‘Foreign Ministry Canapés for Diplomats’ account or the ‘Foreign Ministry Office Refurbishment in the Rome Embassy’ fund.

But in addition to cash, Thailand will donate at least 20,000 tons of rice, packed in one- or two-kilogram bags for ease of distribution. Which sounds very generous.

Until you remember that Haiti is the other side of the world. As far as I have been able to find out, Haiti buys almost all its rice on the world market but none from Thailand. And one of the reasons may be that the rice-growing areas of the US are a couple of days sailing from Haiti, rather than the 3 to 4 weeks it takes from Thailand.

But then again, if the emergency Thai rice sets off ‘within this month’ as the PM’s Office has promised, then by the time it arrives in Port-au-Prince, they may been able to rebuild the port so they can offload it.

Of course, there was a time when Haiti produced almost all the rice it needed. But this domestic market was protected behind a 50% tariff. Then the Haitians elected as President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who started dismantling decades of dictatorial rule with some pro-poor policies.

Pro-poor policies in the US backyard are easily mistaken for anti-transnational corporation activities and Aristide was ousted in a coup where many believe the US administration was not exactly an innocent bystander.

The thugs who took over were such an embarrassment that eventually President Clinton sent in the marines to reinstate Aristide, but not before extracting a promise to run the economy the way that the IMF and World Bank dictated. And one of their dictates was a reduction in the tariff on rice from 50% to 3%.

Now another international financial institution, the WTO, was also all in favour of this, since it promotes free trade. This is supposed to include the elimination of subsidies on exports, but the WTO Agreement on Agriculture is carefully crafted with enough loopholes to leave US rice production heavily subsidized.

(There is a Thai connection here. Alone among major rice exporters, the bulk of US rice goes onto the international market, rather than being consumed domestically as is the case for Thailand. And Thailand has been one of the US’ major competitors. To ensure that its otherwise expensive rice can compete, the US Department of Agriculture has kept a large team in the Bangkok embassy with the task of figuring out how much rice Thailand is going to produce each year, and at what cost, and hence how much will go onto the world market and at what price. They then can calculate how much to pay in subsidy to US producers so that they remain artificially competitive.)

Without the protection of the tariff, Haitian rice farmers were undercut by subsidized US rice from just across the water. Thousands and thousands of families lost their livelihoods and trooped into the cities to try to eke out a living.

In the cities they had to build their shacks on whatever land was not wanted, like crowded on slopes that better-off folk found too dangerous. Especially when there is an earthquake. And you thought free trade couldn’t kill anyone.

Still, I am sure that the dispossessed, forcibly migrated, and now homeless former rice farmers of Haiti will be grateful for Thailand’s one- or two-kilo bags of rice. Those that have survived long enough, that is.


About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).