Timi Gerson

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102 Years After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: What Have We Learned?

Sophie Gerson. Credit: The Gerson Family

Sophie Gerson. Credit: The Gerson Family.

My Grandma Sophie taught me the importance of standing up against people who take advantage of others. Her activism—and that of her allies in the labor movement—inspired me to dedicate my life to advocating for people who are disenfranchised, marginalized, or rendered invisible. As a little girl, I remember hearing about how my grandmother, a textile union organizer, was arrested, framed and almost deported because she wouldn’t stop speaking out for worker justice. I remember being electrified by my grandmother’s stories about fighting corrupt bosses and profit-hungry factory owners.

But no story from that era was more shocking to me than the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.

In that tragic, preventable disaster, 146 women—mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants—perished after being trapped inside. The manager had locked all the doors and exits. Read More »

Posted in Human Rights | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Three Things Washington Needs to Remember in Haiti

Originally posted on Change.org.

Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report on the state of play regarding relief and reconstruction efforts in Haiti. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. One of the report’s major findings is that the various donor governments are having trouble agreeing on a unified set of priorities and plans, in part due to a lack of leadership on the part of the Haitian government.

To my mind, this points to one of the problems underlying the Haiti effort since the beginning: an over-reliance on consulting primarily — and frequently exclusively-with the Haitian government on relief and reconstruction efforts. The U.S. government hopes that it can push President Preval to take on a different level and type of leadership, and I hope so too. But equally important are following the three recommendations based on what AJWS has repeatedly heard from our partners in Haiti:

1) Engage Haitian Civil Society. The report’s assertion that the Preval Administration can’t get its act together is one of the best arguments for putting serious effort into truly involving Haitian civil society — particularly affected sectors and populations — in the reconstruction process. It’s not good enough to assume that the Haitian government is serving as proxies for these groups.  Witness the recent debacle regarding the donation of seeds by Monsanto, which by all accounts was approved by the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture without input from prominent rural development and campesino groups. The result? More than 10,000 Haitians farmers marched in protest and promised to burn the seeds.The fact that Haitian farmers are mobilizing against a seed donation that the Ministry approved is a serious indicator of how little the government is involving civil society in its planning process. Yes, the government has an important role to play — but it should be clear to everyone by now that without sustained, robust and empowering engagement with Haitian civil society, it’s unclear how it can play that role appropriately or effectively.

2) Decentralize Aid Resources from Port-au-Prince. AJWS partners in Haiti report (and high-level meetings with UNDP and other officials confirm) that aid is not getting outside of Port-au-Prince. Yes, the area is the one most heavily affected by the earthquake — which is why more than half a million Haitians fled the city to other, more rural parts of the country. Unfortunately, the failure of aid resources and projects to help this displaced population is causing a reverse migration back to the city — with serious short- and long-term consequences. In the short term, this compounds shelter, water, sanitation and security issues in the city. Over the long term, it will recreate the situation of massive over-crowding and unsafe infrastructure that significantly amplified the devastating impact of the earthquake in the first place.

3) Create Jobs Through Local Procurement. A fascinating poll commissioned by Oxfam found that the biggest priority for Haitians is not food, water or shelter, but jobs. There is certainly plenty of work to do. Many projects should be employing Haitians right now. U.S. and other donor money should prioritize local procurement by partnering with Haitian goods and services providers  — or at a minimum, should ensure that international contractors use local labor. Such a shift in policy will spur economic development and help break the vicious cycle of poverty and aid dependency in which Haiti was caught long before January 12.There is plenty to do in Haiti; Haitian companies and workers are willing and able to do it if we give them the chance.

Which brings me to the real question  — what can the U.S. do to support real change in Haiti?

For starters, the Obama administration and Congress should lead by example in ensuring serious and ongoing consultation with Haitian civil society. By relying too much on the Preval government and too little on Haitian civil society voices, we set ourselves up for failure. Instead, the U.S. should use its influence to ensure that there is no Congressional hearing, donor forum or high-level aid coordination meeting at which key Haitian civil society leaders representing affected populations and sectors are not present.

Secondly, the U.S. Senate should pass S. 3317, the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding (HEAR) Act, introduced by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Robert Corker (R-TN). This bill provides a clear framework and set of priorities for U.S. aid in Haiti based on development principles that we know work. Among other things, the bill focuses on long-term development goals as well as short-term needs, supports engagement with Haitian civil society and affected populations in the design and implementation of rebuilding, and encourages local procurement. The HEAR Act also makes U.S. aid to Haiti transparent, by creating reporting mechanisms to help taxpayers be sure that our government is doing its part to build the country back better in ways that reflect Haiti’s actual needs. 

We all want to help Haiti recover from disaster — to do so effectively, we must listen to and work with the Haitian people. Tell your senators that you want U.S. aid to help build Haiti back better by passing the HEAR Act today.

Posted in In the News, Sustainable Solutions, Take Action | Leave a comment

What Does Global Finance Have Against African Farmers?

African countries aren’t spending enough on agriculture,IRIN reported last week. And that’s a bad thing:

“Spending money on food production is critical in Africa, where 70 percent of people live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for food and income.

There are also going to be more people to feed in Africa in the next few decades. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is expected to grow faster than elsewhere by 2050, increasing by 910 million people, or 108 percent.”

It is a bad thing, but the article and cited reports don’t go into much detail as to why these governments aren’t investing in agriculture programs. One key reason is that they don’t always have the choice. Powerful International financial organizations (IFIs) like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund frequently required developing countries to cut back government spending – including farm programs – in order for countries to receive desperately needed loans while global trade rules enforced by the World Trade Organization make many types of domestic agricultural policies that protect local farmers from unfair foreign competition “illegal.” This was all done in the name of creating more “open” global markets, yet the United States and other rich countries still heavily support their corporate commodity sector, which then dump products on   developing countries – competing with local farmers who now find it harder to sell their locally-grown food.

Food and Water Watch describes the devastating consequences of this cycle in its report What’s Behind the Global Food Crisis? How Trade Policy Undermined Africa’s Food Self-Sufficiency:

“This low level of agricultural investment cannot generate sustained growth in the farm sector that can provide a base for broader economic growth. Countries reduced or eliminated support for farm credit, seed and fertilizer subsidies, and crop distribution and reserve programs. These programs helped farmers increase agricultural productivity, invest in their operations and promote their crops in regional and export markets. When African governments rapidly withdrew from supporting these farm programs, agricultural productivity declined, as farmers were unable to secure loans, afford high-value seeds and fertilizers, or deliver their crops to more distant markets.”

People in Africa and other countries around the globe aren’t hungry because the world isn’t producing enough food. Along with poor infrastructure and inefficient aid policies, decades of unfair international finance and trade deals are part of a flawed global system that prevents the world’s vast surplus of food from making it to the mouths of hungry families.

Posted in In the News, Outraged! | 1 Comment

Five Questions Monsanto Needs to Answer about its Seed Donation to Haiti

Originally posted on Civil Eats.

Monsanto has donated $4 million in seeds to Haiti, sending 60 tons of conventional hybrid corn and vegetable seed, followed by 70 more tons of corn seed last week with an additional 345 tons of corn seed to come during the next year. Yet the number one recommendation of a recent report by Catholic Relief Services on post-earthquake Haiti is to focus on local seed fairs and not to introduce new or “improved” varieties at this time.

Some tough questions need to be asked and answered before we’ll know whether or not Monsanto’s donation will help or hurt long-term efforts to rebuild food sufficiency and sovereignty in Haiti. Here are five of them:

  • What do Haitians think? Do rural organizations representing Haiti’s farmers actually want these seeds from Monsanto or not? We know at least one spokesperson for Haitian farmers isn’t interested. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste of the Peasant Movement of Papay and the National Peasant Movement of the Papay Congress said in a recent article published by Grassroots International that “if people start sending hybrid, NGO seeds, that’s the end of Haitian agriculture.”
  • Will Haitian farmers be able to use existing farming methods with these seeds or do they require a completely different set of techniques – for example, is it possible for these seeds to be banked year to year for use in more than one planting cycle? Hybrid seeds don’t have a great track record for re-planting, which means that farmers typically must buy new seeds every year.
  • Does cultivation of these seeds require expensive new inputs and/or chemicals that may negatively impact the environment and soil over the long-term? Hybrids typically require a lot of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. and according to the press release, these will be provided through the USAID’s 5-year WINNER program. When the WINNER program is done, will farmers find themselves reliant on external inputs they can’t afford or access? What will the inputs leave behind in terms of the soil’s condition?
  • Will the rest of the Monsanto seeds sent to Haiti over the next year be conventional or genetically modified (GM)? GM seeds are as controversial in Haiti as they are here at home. It is critical that Haitians themselves are in charge of the decision to plant or not plant GM; they first need to know what is being offered to them in the first place.
  • Will the Monsanto seeds (whether conventional or GM) affect indigenous seed diversity by mixing with them and contaminating existing seed strains? Large influxes of non-native seeds have touched off controversy and alarmed environmental activists and peasant farmers from Mexico to Malaysia to Mali.

Agricultural development is critical for Haiti and was even before the earthquake. Lambi Fund of Haiti, a partner organization of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), has been working with rural communities to create indigenous seed banks, building expertise in farming techniques and using environmentally-friendly methods to renew depleted Haitian soil.

Advocates for common sense food aid, including AJWS, are asking Congress to spend the $150 million dollars requested by the Obama Administration for Food Aid to Haiti on resources that will help Haiti feed itself for the long-term. You can make your voice heard by signing this petition.

Monsanto’s donation – just like the US government’s in-kind food aid donations – should empower rather than dis-empower the rural communities working to grow food for their country over the long term. More to the point, the communities most affected by these donations should decide whether they want this aid at all and if so, what they want and when they want it. It’s unclear in this case if Monsanto or anyone else has asked them.

Posted in In the News, Sustainable Solutions | Leave a comment