Introduction: When Is Disaster Intolerable?
- Emergency Planning & Recovery;
- Human Rights;
- Latin America and the Caribbean;
- Poverty & Inequality
Haiti has been this hemisphere’s hard case for centuries. Colonialism and slavery were particularly brutal there. When Haitians took the French declaration of the Rights of Man seriously in 1792, their revolution was crushed by Republican France. When Haiti did attain national independence, it was governed by rapacious dictators. Papa Doc Duvalier was one of the most celebrated of the type, sustained in power by the infamous Tonton Macoutes, a cross between gangsters and secret police. Violent though they were, they could only sustain Papa’s son Baby Doc for a few years before he retired in luxury to the South of France. Democratic elections brought Jean-Bertrand Aristede to power. A former priest and author of the compelling memoir, In the Parish of the Poor, Aristede rode mass enthusiasm to power, raised ideals and hopes, only to see revolution crushed – this time under the weight of corruption inside, the resistance led by Haiti’s rich elite, and the resistance of the US to a revolution that called for social justice not just political reform. Aristede’s government made too little progress, and after he was ousted his supporters were unwilling to make peace until he eventual retired to his own exile, less luxurious than Baby Doc’s, in Africa. A UN peacekeeping force curtailed factional fighting but crime persisted with public order weakened by doubts about what side police were on. Governments shifted; some tried harder than others to help ordinary people as well as to ensure profits for the country’s cluster of wealthy families. The most recent struck many as a cause for hope. But meanwhile AIDS was devastating. Institutions were weak. Economic growth was slow before the global crisis and nonexistent after. And then an earthquake struck.
The earthquake struck very democratically. It killed the archbishop. It killed the head of the UN mission. It leveled poor neighborhoods but it hit rich ones hard too. It all but destroyed the government, the health care system, the water system, the food distribution system, daily life.
In the best of times it was hard to get around in Haiti. Roads were rough. There were thieves and bandits. Now moving food, water, and medicine are epic logistical challenges. It is easier to get supplies to Haiti than to move them inside the country. It is easier to fly planes into the airport than to fly them out. There is no fuel.
This is what humanitarian emergencies are like. They are reminders that modern life depends on an infrastructure of physical facilities and socio-technical systems. Electricity and working phones become scarce. It is hard to get accurate information. People are displaced. In Haiti their homes have been destroyed or become dangerous. Elsewhere they are driven from them by wars, oppression, hurricanes. People sleep in streets and in makeshift camps – which creates new vulnerabilities, especially for women. People sacrifice themselves to try to save their children. They cry because they’ve failed. They surprise by the generosity with which they help others. They also disappoint. Disaster makes many impressively altruistic and others desperate or selfish.
Everywhere the most important humanitarian assistance comes locally. It comes sometimes from local officials but mostly it comes unofficially. It comes from churches, from the boy scouts, from nurses working until they drop. It comes from friends and neighbors and from total strangers. The international organizations that can ramp up assistance best in emergencies are those that have been working in Haiti all along, and those that connect international support to the local service initiatives that Ferentz Lafargue describes in his essay. Partners in Health is a Boston-based NGO founded in connection with work in Haiti and made famous by Paul Farmer’s pioneering combination of medical care and anthropological fieldwork (and Tracy Kidder’s book about it, Mountains beyond Mountains). It runs clinics in Haiti and didn’t have to fly anyone in to start work (though it has increased its staff and material support). Médecins Sans Frontières and Care and Oxfam and the Red Cross and several UN agencies (among others) are all committed long-term. We’ve included links in this forum for those who wish to give. As many have mentioned, give money. Trying to send old clothes and canned goods imposes too big a burden of transportation and too much risk of bad fit to local circumstances.
It’s not too late to give because the emergency won’t last just a few days. It won’t last just the couple of weeks it will stay in the news. It is an illusion that we think of emergencies as completely unpredictable and essentially short-term. No one predicted the moment of the earthquake, but as Bill O’Neill notes in his essay there were predictions of an imminent quake along this fault line. And Haiti has faced recurrent disasters. In each, nature is part of the story but vulnerability is exacerbated by poverty and by weak infrastructure. The social institutions that should ensure security are undermined not so much by poverty as by extremes of inequality and the corruption and abuses of power that accompany them. And this emergency will be acute for weeks and it will persist for months and even years before all the displaced have homes again, before the collapsed hospital walls are rebuilt. The effects of the earthquake, and of the emergency for which the earthquake was only one contributing cause, will last longer.
And so there is the question that has to be asked in every humanitarian emergency: what next? We know in some loose sense the answer is “development.” We know the more likely reality is that global attention will move on. Haiti’s many migrants will continue to support their relatives at home, and their remittances will pay for some reconstruction. There will be loans and gifts and more international agencies, though as Robert Fatton notes in his essay, there were thousands already. If aid agencies alone made for development Haiti would be a very different place.
Reconstruction is an inadequate vision of the future. Putting a terrible pre-crisis reality back in place would be better than nothing perhaps, but hardly wonderful. And Haiti is a country of great potential: a beautiful landscape of green hills, vibrant and creative artists, eloquent writers, energetic people. But as Gregg Beckett suggests in his essay, crisis had become normal in Haiti. The reasons why economic growth was at best halting are still present.
Those reasons include weak export industries, underskilled workers, a shortage of capital, and a massive burden of international debt (at last decreasing somewhat, as Saskia Sassen discusses in her contribution). But the reasons centered – and still center – on the lack of a viable and effective state. There are no economic solutions that don’t include political solutions. There are no ways to redress the debilitating inequality when the state is captured or weak. As important as private action is, there are no ways to create effective educational and health institutions without strong public leadership.
In fact, the common opposition between state power and private business is misleading. Weak states commonly create circumstances in which corruption and efforts to manipulate state power are more profitable than businesses that create good jobs and bring long-term development. They allow violence and theft to continue. More effective states can create the conditions under which private business can thrive.
But a thriving future for Haiti also depends on a supportive rather than destructive international environment. The rich world is demonstrating compassion in the midst of this humanitarian crisis. It can continue to help Haiti with development assistance – grants not loans as Alex Dupuy stresses – targeted to rebuilding infrastructure but also building strong social institutions like schools. It can also help with stabilization of residency for Haitians in the US, favorable trade policies, capital for enterprises that will rebuild houses and create jobs.
Neither research nor practical experience has discovered recipes for certain economic development. The processes are complex, even if some of the conditions are clear. Perhaps the word development misleads, by implying that economic growth and improved social conditions somehow come as natural processes. Perhaps it also encourages pursuing growth without addressing environmental sustainability. Whatever we call it, though, Haiti needs roads, houses, clean water, food, and a chance for people to create better lives for themselves and their children.
After one of the worst humanitarian disasters ever, there is the opportunity to provide emergency relief in ways that not only save lives but help people restart lives and then to provide continued support so improvement becomes sustainable. The motivation can be just compassion, or a belief that a more prosperous and stable Haiti will be good for everyone, or a desire to redeem the ideals expressed in countless past promises and sacrificed to expediency. However we explain our desire to help, learning how to help better should be high on the agenda for social science.