New Orleans and the Third World


Introduction

The devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina is being compared to disasters in the “Third World” but with no specific countries or disasters named. And if not compared to this black hole or repository of disaster that is the “Third World,” a comparison to Africa is as specific as it gets. “New Orleans is a scene from the Third World”, “like the Third World”, “US Handles the crisis like a third world country”, “bodies floating on water reminiscent of Africa” etc. This has been a constant with news commentators, analysts, members of the senate and congress and other sections of America commenting on New Orleans. The accompanying statements to this have been “I cannot believe this is America” or “This is not supposed to happen in America”. It is supposed to and can only happen somewhere else. Attending a food festival event in Madison, Wisconsin I overheard a joke – “Where is New Orleans again?” New Orleans is next to Somalia”.

What role is the “Third World” playing in how Americans are dealing with the disaster? Where does the “Third World” fit in the imagination of the American? What does it mean to say that this is not supposed to happen in the United States? To me, it is almost as if by displacing disasters and human suffering to the “Third World,” the New Orleans disaster is not really happening in the United States. New Orleans is “out there” and everyone else is ! safe and American – the crisis in New Orleans is happening in a “Third World” outpost and the United States remains rich, strong and invulnerable.

The American citizen has been stewing in nationalism, manifest destiny and the myth of the democratic society that errors but never oppresses or marginalizes for so long that even a natural disaster cannot be seen and understood outside this lens. And the fact that most of the victims are predominantly poor and African American is not being understood as a creation of very specific domestic policies and conservative ideologies; it has to be filtered through the “Third World”. As if a disaster from that “part of the world” somehow managed to sneak through the porous Mexican borders.

Bush’s Remarks

It is interesting therefore to look at President Bush’s remarks after touring New Orleans on September 2nd after four days of inaction. His first sentence was “ I’ve just completed a tour of some devastated country”. A detached statement but it gets worse – a little later he says “I know the people of this part of the world are suffering…” and he goes on to talk about how progress is being made. Then he says “ The people in this part of the world have got to understand…” Shortly after this, he says “You know, I’m going to fly out of here in a minute, but I want you to know that I’m not going to forget what I’ve seen” and again refers to his constituents as “good folks of this part of the world”. It is almost as if he is in a different country consoling its citizenry. He himself is so detached about what is happening in the very country he leads that he refers to it as “this part of the world”. As far as I know, no one in the mainstream media picked this up, they too are reporting on that “part of the world”.

Believing that humor is the best medicine, in the same speech he also makes a rather tasteless joke: “I believe the town where I used to come [to] from Houston, Texas, to enjoy myself, occasionally too much, will be that very same town, that it will be a better place to come to”. Now, this is a President who up to this point has not visited New Orleans, a disaster area that is being acknowledged as probably the worst in recent U.S. history, yet, speaking to an evacuated, wounded and dying constituency, he refers to their drowned city that was their whole life as his old party ground. All in all President Bush gives the kind of speech a visiting leader would make during a hurriedly prepared press conference after being caught unawares by a natural disaster. It captures his inability to empathize, to really be one with the victims.

The Myth and the “Third World”

An American dying in a natural disaster will look like a human being dying in any natural disaster and not necessarily like an African. A homeless American looks like any homeless human being and not always like an African. And a natural disaster should not be seen as somebody else’s natural disaster but as one that afflicts all humanity. We are of a common humanity. It is the myth that only other nations torture that led to Abu Ghraib. It is the myth that only other countries have political prisoners that keeps political activists like Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier in American jails for fighting American marginalization. It is the belief t! hat only other countries exile those that oppose their policies that has led to the bounty on Assata Shakur – exiled in Cuba for fighting for African American rights – being raised to one million dollars. And it is the myth that only other countries ignore and exploit their poor that led to the disaster in New Orleans.

But there are ways in which America is like the “Third World”. Privatization, which in “Third World” Countries becomes structural adjustment programs, has been happening in the United States since the Reagan years of small government, through the Clinton years that saw a full assault on Welfare and affirmative action originally designed to buoy the marginalized, and through the Bush years that have been rewarding the rich while taking away from the poor through Federal and Supreme Court nominations that support big business and reduce the power of labor unions, among other things. These have been the years of ‘blaming the victim’ while preying on them. They are poor because they are lazy – ! enter the “welfare queen”. While the mainstream United States was busy trying to convince itself that poverty and racism were things of the past or happened only to other nations, the marginalized were becoming even more vulnerable. Most of the victims in New Orleans are black and poor – race and class – an inversion of Frantz Fanon’s one is rich because he/she is white and one is white because he/she is rich to read one is poor because he/she is black and one is black because he/she is poor. Just like in the “Third World” in times of natural disasters and wars, it is the most victimized in New Orleans that are doing most of the dying.

Contradictions

The reasons why the poor couldn’t leave the city are quite easy to understand. They couldn’t afford it. They simply did not have cars or money for transportation, are jobless, or live pay-check to pay-check and couldn’t have had any money saved up for relocation. Where poor people owned houses to which they had mortgaged their lives, where their homes had become the marker of their humanity and achievement, staying put and essentially fighting for their lives was the only option.

Like the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, or the ongoing genocide in Darfur, this particular disaster had been telegraphed – we all knew it was going to happen, and more political and economic will, including a more comprehensive effort to evacuate the city of New Orleans, could have minimized human suffering. What makes it even worse is that the millions being pledged now by private citizens and corporations and the 10.5 billion initially pledged by the government could have saved New Orleans ten times over through improvement of infrastructure. Because of the federal government’s push for privatization which translates into public services being slas! hed or sold to private companies, perhaps the government simply no longer has structures in place to handle disasters. This could explain why Bush ended his speech with “If you want to help, if you’re listening to this broadcast, contribute cash to the Salvation Army and the Red Cross”. Each death in New Orleans was preventable. But money is not made in prevention but in reconstruction. Soon, like in Iraq, the big contracts for reconstruction will be on their way – some corporations will make a killing. Let the bidding begin.

Also, it is with a sense of irony that one reads of corporations like Wal-Mart contributing millions of dollars to the relief efforts. Yet were their employees in New Orleans working in better conditions and with better pay, some of those who couldn’t afford to evacuate would have been able to do so. These corporations are responsible for the loss of jobs through outside contracting to sweatshops in “Third World” countries where in turn occasional fires break out leading to hundreds of deaths. In “Third World” countries, they no longer pay government taxes in the tax free trade zones, leading to further des! truction of already fragile and poor economies. Where these corporations have remained in the United States as retailers and manufacturers, they have seen to wages being cut. They are rabidly against unions and essentially use the community the same way colonial companies used colonized communities – for cheap labor, extraction of raw materials and of course as buyers of products whose production is finished elsewhere.

Thus coupled with a government that has engineered its own version of structural adjustment to maximize profit, and corporations that economically and politically colonize a community, the vulnerability – which in real terms is the result of victimization – seen in New Orleans is not a surprise. Rather, it is the culmination of well planned and orchestrated policies that consolidate wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the poor. Globalization is not resulting in a world that becomes better as it gets smaller, but rather in a world where poverty becomes more prevalent and more apparent. This globalization of poverty makes New Orleans a village ! in everybody’s backyard. Instead of outsourcing disaster to an unnamed “Third World” it seems to me that citizens of the United States should be placing the responsibility for the preventable deaths and suffering in New Orleans on their government and corporate board rooms.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change and the forthcoming, Looking at America: Politics of Change.

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