Moving Beyond Disaster to Build a Durable Future in Haiti

Natural disasters follow the fault-lines of inequality, and Haiti is a clear example of how disaster and extreme vulnerability combine to produce catastrophe. The earthquake that struck the country on January 12 has been devastating. It is easily the worst disaster Haiti has ever faced, and it will be counted among the world's worst humanitarian crises. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake, with an extremely shallow presence and dozens of aftershocks, would be devastating in any context. In Haiti, the quake hit a dense urban area with three million people living in precarious conditions. The country had only minimal and fragile infrastructure before the quake. Now, it has virtually none. The capital city of Port-au-Prince was the seat of government and the base of a UN stabilization mission as well as the base of most aid organizations and NGOs. All have been affected. The country has been decapitated, with all of the symbolic and material representations of the state now in ruins. Relief and rescue is the most pressing concern in the days and weeks ahead, but we will soon need to turn to the issues of resettlement and reconstruction. How can we move beyond humanitarianism and disaster response to a comprehensive plan to build the foundations for a durable future?

Crisis, disaster, and insecurity are foundational concepts in contemporary global politics. They are all key concepts in a dominant paradigm that takes emergency as a central feature of social and political life. A country's ability to respond to natural hazards and disasters is now a key benchmark for determining the capacity of state institutions. Global norms envision states prepared to deal rapidly and effectively with all manner of disasters, from hurricanes and floods to earthquakes or tsunamis. Capacity and preparedness are crucial aspects of good governance. But there is an unintended (or intended?) consequence of the overwhelming focus on emergency today—the normalization of crisis.

What does it mean to think of crisis as a normal condition of social life? What are the implications of framing disaster response as a normative condition of statehood, rather than, perhaps, making development or sustainability foundational concepts? To adequately answer such questions, it is worth briefly considering the origins of the notion of crisis. The word crisis comes from an Ancient Greek term that named the decisive turning point in the course of a disease, when the patient lived or died. Crisis is strongly related to critique and judgement, and to a moment of decision. It is also conceptually rooted in the exclusive disjuncture—the moment in which the future is undecided, but only one of a range of possible outcomes (life or death) will finally be possible. In global politics, the decisive moment becomes a moral obligation to intervene, often through humanitarian missions. Such interventions are often short-term, punctuated responses that treat disasters and crises as sudden but anticipated ruptures. Preparedness and response become moments for the state to perform and enact its capacity to govern. What results are systems of crisis management, rather than bold attempts to resolve the underlying conditions—such as extreme poverty and social vulnerability—that contribute to the extent and scope of disasters. Under the banner of crisis response, the old paradigm of development has been displaced by humanitarianism, emergency response, and policing.

The normalization of crisis has had particular consequences in Haiti. The country has so frequently been designated as being "in crisis" that many speak of Haiti's chronic crisis. As paradoxical as that sounds, it is rather telling. By treating crisis as a normative feature of social life, as a routine rupture, meaningful development and democratization projects have been limited, if not abandoned. This has been the case among all three primary actors involved in intervention and response in Haiti: NGOs and grassroots organizations; the state; and the international community.

Non-government organizations have focused on small-scale projects, with no comprehensive plan and no overarching integration. The Haitian state lacks the capacity to engage in an ambitious national development plan, and has been hampered by political insecurity, lack of funds, and corruption. The international community has a long, strained history of intervention, but these so far have not yielded concrete results beyond the level of (often short-lived) political stability and security. For decades, these actors have been unable or unwilling to transform immediate and urgent response into projects designed to build the capacity of social, political, and economic institutions. As a result, the underlying structural problems of Haitian society persist, creating a long emergency that periodically erupts symptomatically into a crisis that garners the world's attention for a short time.

There are a number of factors that might explain the inability to move from humanitarianism to reconstruction. These include funding issues, lack of political will, and Haiti's lack of wealth or strategic importance. But there is a particular factor that is especially important in this case. Rapid response to political crises or humanitarian disasters have been handled by the United States and the United Nations, often with support from global actors like the International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, OxFam, and others. These interventions are invariably imagined as temporary, though some have lasted a considerable amount of time (e.g., the US Occupation of 1915-1934). On the other hand, development in Haiti has been run through a staggering array of non-government actors (see William O'Neill's piece). As a result, the Haitian state remains aid-dependent and incapable of responding to emergencies. Bypassing the state may have made sense under the Duvalier dictatorship, but for the past twenty years this tendency has significantly weakened the state.

Haiti needs an ambitious national development plan. It needed such a plan before the recent earthquake, and it needs it now more than ever. International intervention has always been short-sighted, since it responds to particular emergencies. Grassroots development has remained intensely regional, and has had marginal impact on the country as a whole. What is required now is a bold, comprehensive plan of national reconstruction that seeks to address extreme vulnerability, persistent poverty, and social exclusion.

The only actor that can legitimately make the transition from emergency response to national reconstruction is the Haitian state. The current relief mission cannot be allowed to devolve into yet another US military occupation. Foreign assistance must be multilateral, and must work in partnership with the Haitian government, which persists despite the widespread destruction of its central offices. Given the scale and scope of the destruction wrought by the earthquake, the Haitian state will require significant foreign assistance in order to recuperate.

In the short-term, foreign assistance will need to focus on humanitarian intervention. But the only meaningful response to the Haitian catastrophe will be a long-term commitment to work with the Haitian state, and to provide the necessary conditions to build and strengthen national institutions that are legitimate, transparent, and democratic. Reconstruction cannot focus on Port-au-Prince alone. The entire country must be rebuilt. This entails a genuine commitment to rural development, reforestation, poverty reduction, education, health, and food security. Without these, the country as a whole will remain chronically weak, fragile, and vulnerable.

The Haitian earthquake is a disaster requiring a committed global humanitarian response. But it is also a critical moment for regional and global governance. The disaster is a challenge to the world, a moment of decision: Do we leave Haiti as it was, a weak state, a fragile economy, and a vulnerable population? Or do we embrace this disaster as a moment for real change and seek to build a resilient country with a durable future? If we chose the latter, we will need to think much more ambitiously about development and democratization in Haiti then we have in the past. Given the promises that have so far been made by the international community, we may be on the cusp of a turning point. If, after all is said and done, we merely “rebuild” Haiti as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, it will be a great failure of imagination and a wholesale indictment of global political institutions.





Greg Beckett is Collegiate Assistant Professor of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. He is currently working on a book manuscript based on his dissertation and on a series of articles on Haiti that examines the discourse on state failure and the use of international peacekeeping missions as a mode of emergency powers and humanitarian crises and disaster response.


More on Haiti at The Immanent Frame, the Council's blog on secularism, religion, and the public sphere.

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Published on: Friday, January 22, 2010