“Haiti? As in the storm?”
“I remember the earthquake that one time.”
“The new facebook filter.”
These were just some of the responses I received when I asked people what things they associated with Haiti. I was unsurprised by the first two answers, although I must admit the last one threw me off slightly.
But after all, why should those responses be shocking? The devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Matthew has haunted Western news channels for weeks, with Haitians scrambling amongst the debris of their homes and frantically crawling along the floors of overcrowded hospitals in mourning of lost loved ones.
Such images caused an uneasy sense of déjà vu to those of us who remember the Haitian earthquake of 2010. So core-shattering were these images that the ‘Help for Haiti’ campaign was launched. The now infamous footage of a Haitian woman being pulled alive from debris by foreign aid workers gave a perception of hope, restoration, and renewal that people continued to buy into literally and psychologically, even though the realities of Haiti’s poor development over the past 6 years could not be further from this.
According to ReliefWeb, a total of $3.5 billion was given to humanitarian efforts in Haiti following the earthquake. It’s easy to value this figure by its quantity rather than its impact, and this is much of the problem in the ways in which Westerners perceive foreign aid, clutching “emergency aid” and “developmental aid,” under the same umbrella. The crucial difference is that the latter supports the economic, environmental, social and political development of a country.
There is little to show for the impact of developmental aid in Haiti. The country still remains the poorest in the Western hemisphere, with many still living in shelters. Citizens are still scarred from the brutality of the Duvalier regime throughout the 70s and 80s, in which thousands of Haitians fled to the US (and were subsequently forcibly returned.) Protests broke out during last year’s presidential elections after accusations of government fraud. A cholera outbreak has crippled Haitian healthcare since being introduced by UN peacekeepers in 2010, something which they have only recently admitted to.
Dozens of metric tonnes of food have been distributed to Haiti from the US in an effort to combat hunger but at the expense of the Haitian economy. Haitian farmers growing staple foods already face disadvantages in cost versus imports of subsidized rice from the U.S., and the massive quantities of food distributed by aid organisations have not made it any easier for Haiti to learn to support itself again. This led the Haitian government to call off food aid in 2010.
“foreign aid gives Westerners a perception of hope, restoration and renewal which often isn’t the case”
Historically, international intervention has tended to do Haiti more harm than good, which is why some natives are understandably opposed to foreign aid, “I’ve never believed in [it],” a hurricane survivor told AFP; “Please, don’t come back promising us billions again if nothing is to come out of it.”
The Haitian Reconstruction Fund disbursed this year through 30th June just $16.7m out of a total of $351m for disaster relief purposes.
US governmental websites are all too keen to bullet point all the good they have done the country, but no solid evidence of aiding long-term growth, which is needed if Haiti is to succeed independently, as Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, suggests.
In a column for The Guardian, McCalla references aid groups’ predatory legacy in Haiti: “Westerners looking on the island with concern should know: what we need most for long-term growth is investment, not charity,” she says.
It would be ignorant to deny that the need for emergency aid is imperative. The category-four storm is believed to have killed as many as 900 people, entire villages have been wiped out and more than 60,000 people have been displaced and are in need of emergency shelter. UN secretary Ban Ki-moon has said that a “massive response” is needed to help Haiti recover from the devastation caused by the hurricane. However, there are still crucial lessons to be learnt from the response to the 2010 earthquake.
However, there are still crucial lessons to be learnt from the response to the 2010 earthquake. Foreign NGOs were criticised for having their own agenda, ignoring the traditions and expertise of those they were supposed to help.
“The coping strategies of local people were overlooked,” John Mitchell, a leading analyst of humanitarian aid, told the BBC, “Opportunities to support local businesses were missed.”
If immediate responses to crises are not followed up with long-term solutions, Haiti risks living up to its name as “NGO republic” for many years to come.
“Relief aid should be empowering,” says McCalla, “it should be delivered quickly to meet urgent needs, not be used as a permanent channel for relieving normal stress and pain associated with development woes.”
By all means, give help to Haiti. But don’t throw money into a bottomless pit and expect it to fill up with gold.