The Man-Made Aftershocks of A Natural Disaster: Haiti One Year Later

Kevin Edmonds Jan 27, 2011

More than a year has passed since Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, along with one of the largest international relief efforts in modern history. Yet, for many people in Haiti today, little has changed, and for many others life has become worse. While the uncontrollable forces of nature can be blamed for the death and destruction of the earthquake (in which an estimated 300,000 Haitians perished), the extreme vulnerability of the nation both before and after the disaster was entirely man-made.

One year after the quake, 1.3 million people still are living in unsanitary and makeshift tent camps despite $10 billion dollars of aid pledged by the international community. Many Haitians think that instead of an international aid effort, they are witnessing the continuation of a lengthy history of self-interested foreign intervention in their country.

Instead of relief efforts, the more concrete plans coming from the international community are the construction of giant factories. While there is no argument about whether Haiti needs jobs, the $3 a day minimum wage offered in such factories will do little to help Haitians help themselves or rebuild their homes, as they will earn just enough to stay alive and return to work the next day. Taken together, the combination of an as-yet undelivered $10 billion in reconstruction funds promised for Haiti, the nearly 80% of the Haitian people without stable work, and a recently disclosed timeline estimating that only 40% of the rubble will be cleared by August 2011 (19 months after the quake) means that the lack of coordination and vision of the planners has now become deadly.

Haitian activist and historian Jean St. Vil told me that he was “disappointed, but not surprised,” with the lack of progress. ”Years before the quake, every indicator told us that the foreign players who hold almost all significant power in Haiti (political and economic), refuse to change the basic paradigm under which they operate. Therefore, the Haitian population is seen and treated as a threat, not an asset. Thus, the heavy investments in tools of repression (military, police, and prisons) rather than true reconstruction is not surprising.”

Since the quake nearly one billion dollars have been put towards the military. Aristide disbanded the Haitian military, but the UN forces are the de-facto force, and their 2010-2011 tour will cost $865 million – and still more money will be invested in the police, and prison apparatus.

St. Vil went on to say that, “The actions of the foreign diplomats and of the UN personnel in Haiti are often illegal. For instance, the IHRC [Interim Haiti Recovery Commission], co-chaired by Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive is dominated by its foreign membership. (See revealing letter by Haitian members of the IHRC. It has no accountability to the Haitian people, in whose name it is soliciting billions of dollars. So far the focus is not to invest in people, in Haitian-capacity building. We are witnessing the worst form of disaster capitalism at play and the Clinton Global Initiative is a major player at the heart of it all.”

Instead of relief efforts, the billions of dollars promised at the March donor conferences for reconstruction have been going to the payments of Haiti’s debt, sitting in the bank accounts of NGO’s like the Red Cross and World Vision, and held up in Congress, while the United Nations was unable to secure an additional $164 million from international donors to combat the spread of cholera.

Brazilian academic and Special Representative to Haiti for the Organization of American States, Ricardo Seitenfus, strongly criticized the development strategy in Haiti to the Swiss Daily Le Temps, saying that “It is unacceptable from a moral standpoint to treat Haiti as a laboratory. The reconstruction of Haiti and the shimmering promise of $ 11 billion inspire lust. It seems that a lot of people come to Haiti, not for Haiti but to do business. For me as an American it is a disgrace, an affront to our conscience.”

Norman Girvan, a professor and Professional Research Fellow at the University of the West Indies agreed and told me that “The record of the international community in Haiti in the past year is actually quite disgraceful, as the Seitenfus interview shows. They have established a virtual trusteeship over Haiti, instead of helping Haitians build their own institutions and capacity to manage their way out of the catastrophe. So the cycle of neo-colonial dependency has been perpetrated and strengthened.” Indeed, one year after the quake more than one million people still live in squalid conditions of the internal displacement camps.

“Aside from the earthquake, the two biggest problems facing Haiti right now are cholera and the exclusionary and undemocratic elections held on November 28,” comments Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. “The International Community injected the cholera into Haiti,” says Concannon, “and provided generous logistical, financial and political support to the unfair elections, knowing that they were unfair. So the International Community certainly brought harm. Whether that harm was offset by the earthquake reconstruction and other help is a tough question.”

At the time of this writing, the death toll from the cholera epidemic nears 3,600 people, with a recent increase in the total number of deaths per day as a troubling sign that relief efforts cannot effectively contain the spread of the outbreak.. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that the strain of cholera spreading throughout Haiti matches a strain from an earlier outbreak in Nepal – the home country of a large contingent of UN soldiers at the Mirebalais base, next to the river where the cholera originated in Haiti.

The efforts to contain the cholera epidemic are hampered by the absence of the Haitian government and strong state institutions, as evidenced by November’s severely questioned elections in the country.

The exclusion of the most progressive and the most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas (in addition to 14 others), from the election created a significant obstacle to a reconstruction in tune with the needs of Haiti’s poor majority. Fanmi Lavalas was strong within Haiti’s most impoverished communities because it promoted the widespread building of primary social services such as health care and education, attempted to halt the privatization of public utilities, and worked to raise the country’s low minimum wage—all policies that remain widely absent from any of the international community’s reconstruction proposals.

“How can you expect the international community to do something good for Haiti while the same international community supports coup d’etats and flawed elections . . . ,” says Haitian journalist Wadner Pierre. “There has been only empty promises, biased conferences and economic self interest put forward.”

One year later, if Haiti is to see any significant progress in reconstruction, the entire relationship between the international community and Haiti must be radically reconfigured. As it stands, the Haitians living in the internally displaced persons camps, have seen little progress, despite the billions of aid pledged. Their precarious existence hinges on the relief effort that has widely been criticized as poorly organized, self serving, and indifferent.

The international effort to restore rebuild Haiti under the auspices of charity, justice and democracy is carried out through destructive, undemocratic and self serving means. It is hard to imagine that the already tested patience of the Haitian people will last much longer.

Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA Research Associate.

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