There is a general wish to help when the sorrows of natural disasters are broadcasted into our living rooms. When seeing pictures of individual suffering we recognize our privilege in feeling safe. We go out and support the institutions and NGOs there to help, and if time and money allow, some go there in person. But in Haiti, a country that has suffered through several natural disasters and the international aid that followed, we have seen time and time again how it really is not just the thought that matters.
In 2010 Haiti was hit by an earthquake big enough to get the attention of western media. Billions of dollars were raised to help the now poor and homeless. Western organisations flocked there to help build houses, set up education, and provide food. Everyone had their heart in the right place, simply wanting to help the country heal and get back on its feet. However, the reality was more complicated and sometimes good intentions can do real damage.
In the direct aftermath, a lot of money was sent and spent on the absolute necessities such as clearing the rubble, educating children left without schools, starting the rebuild, and food aid. In hindsight, we can see that the food aid is a good example of when help is not helping. There was a need to feed those who lived in the areas affected by the earthquake, but imported food meant that local farmers in the entire country suddenly lost a years’ worth of work. Their harvest became worthless as no one wanted to buy rice when they could get it for free. The documentary Poverty Inc. also show the consequences of projects providing solar panels to Haiti to alleviate the lack of electricity. The projects were well intentioned but they left a local company with no buyers, nearly causing them to go out of business.
When it comes to the rebuild the inefficiency was staggering. A lot of criticism was aimed at the American Red Cross that only managed to build 6 houses for the price tag of half a billion dollars, that is however an extreme example. In general, NGOs and donor nations were unwilling to give money to the Haitian government due to a lack of confidence, and instead kept control and flew in contractors from abroad. This quintupled the costs compared to a charity that hired local workers.
We can see similar overconfidence in westerners’ ability to help by looking at the many voluntourism trips advertised as a way for Americans to help in the years after the earthquake. They often travel to Haiti to build houses without any prior knowledge in construction, leaving local masons – who would do it better and faster – without work.
In October 2010, half a year after the earthquake, Haiti was hit by a devastating outbreak of cholera. It was soon revealed to have been brought to the island by UN soldiers there on a peace keeping mission. Due to a lack of medical screening of their personnel, combined with inadequate sewage systems, the bacteria leaked into the Artibonite River, an important source of drinking water. Even though reports blaming the outbreak on UN forces were released as early as November 2010, causing civil outrage and fatal riots in the country, it was not until 2016 that the UN officially acknowledged their responsibility. Instead, the UN blamed natural causes, leading the Haitian government to build their strategies around the wrong scenario.
Port-au-Prince neighbourhood in ruins following the 2010 earthquake. (Picture: Marcello Casal Jr/ABr; Wikimedia Commons)
Since then over 9000 Haitians have died and almost a million have been infected. Before 2010, Haiti had gone almost a century without cholera and they desperately needed assistance. Unfortunately, this time the will to help was not as strong as before. The UN’s plans to help remedy the situation in 2012 were cut due to lack of funding, and still today the team there to educate and secure drinking water is struggling financially. During that time there was rioting and strong anti-UN sentiments among the Haitian population, something we can see again today.
Earlier this year Haiti was once again struck by natural disaster as hurricane Matthew swept across the country. As one might expect, this has been a serious setback in the rebuilding of the country, and the biggest issue seems to be new outbreaks of cholera. The global community was once again eager to help, hopefully doing it right this time. However, it seems as though the people of Haiti have lost their patience, which seems to reflect years of frustration. Some villagers, feeling neglected by the aid efforts, have raised roadblocks in protest, stopping trucks from delivering supplies to other parts of the country. Once again the population appears to be showing strong anti-intervention sentiments.
The unwillingness to admit fault by aid interventionists seems to be an epidemic. It is easier to not look back at the consequences and trust that the help offered is the help needed. But often the main thing necessary for long term stability is what aid often takes away from the locals – opportunity to work. If local companies, masons, and farmers were called upon first they could provide opportunity for even more people to be able to sustain themselves. The earthquake in Haiti was catastrophic in many ways, but large parts of the country were still standing.
There is little doubt that the way aid has been brought to Haiti has been thoughtless but well-intentioned. But it seems good intentions are ruining a country. From bringing in disease to putting locals out of business, there is a consistent lack of sustainable strategies. The people of Haiti have been there for all of it, even if we keep forgetting. A call for change and the need for Haiti’s voice to be heard is paramount. They must be able to ask for the necessary support, and not be considered ungrateful when they receive the opposite.