“Haiti needs new narratives” – and the Haitian people deserve our support

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Politics & economyHaitiPoverty

In the midst of a political firestorm that is the 2016 US presidential election, Hurricane Matthew blew through Haiti on 4 October.

The damage was considerable: one month on and the damage is still being assessed, the dead still being counted. All of the crops, most of the trees, and over 80 per cent of the housing stock in entire regions of the country, have been destroyed.

Despite this, however, there has been little sustained attention, possibly owing to the elections.

Hurricane Matthew was a Category 4, with 145 mile-per-hour winds. This was the first category 4 since 1954, Hurricane Hazel, which introduced non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to Haiti.

Anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse has inspired a generation of scholars, challenging us with a deceptively simple call: “Haiti needs new narratives.”

The coverage of this storm is an urgent case for why.

Disaster aid is facilitated by media coverage. An article in Disasters demonstrated a correlation in the amount of seconds allocated on prime time news to a particular disaster and the generosity of the response.

However, the high media profile of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti – and the generosity it inspired – came at a price. With stories of devastation, appearing to many foreign observers as hell on earth with phrases like “state failure” often repeated, foreign media coverage also naturalised foreign control of the response.

The media coverage – then and now – highlights the importance of what can be called “disaster narratives.” What is covered, what is not, who is hailed as a hero, whose efforts are ignored, shape the results. I detail this connection in a just-published book chapter.

Aid has been frustratingly slow to arrive. The storm hit some of the most remote areas of Haiti, including the Grand’Anse and the north-west province. The South and Nippes, also hit by Matthew, are more accessible to the capital.

The delays in aid delivery are a direct result of centralisation of political and economic power in Port-au-Prince that began under the 1915 US Occupation and accelerated with neoliberal economic policies imposed by the US government and multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and others.

Once-thriving ports and regional economies, these secondary cities are now dependent on the road to the capital for almost everything. The province of Grand’Anse, with Jéremie as its capital city, is particularly isolated. Its primary economic lifeline, accelerated as the asphalt road has been advancing in the past several years, is charcoal.

Given the fragile state of infrastructure and communications, local Haitian governments, the Civil Protection Department (DPC in the original French), have been doing an admirable job of moving people out of the most danger.

Residents of Île-à-Vache were moved to Les Cayes, only to be doubly displaced by the deluge. In Abricots, an hour and a half from Jéremie via a very difficult and rocky road, local authorities moved residents up the hill.

Ernst Mathurin, director of GRAMIR, an NGO with over 30 years of experience in the most affected Grand’Anse province, said that “were it not for the hands on role played by the CASEC [local community councils], mayors, and the Civil Protection Departments, easily ten times as many people would have died.”

The municipal government of Abricots posted an Emergency Needs Assessment on Friday, 7 October, two days after the storm blew over. Mayor Jean Ricarlto Louis reported that local individuals lent their homes, foodstuffs, water, and even funds to the effort. “But these funds are running out.”

These patchwork efforts highlight the limitations, particularly lack of resources.


The failure of international aid

Hurricane Matthew is the ultimate test of the failure of international aid response, which Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck called “Fatal Assistance”. Simply put, Haiti was not “built back better” by the US$16 billion relief effort following the 2010 earthquake, as UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton cheerfully promised.

Many people, including Haitian scholars, journalists, and social movements, have taken stock of the lessons learned from the humanitarian aftershocks. Among them include:

1) Support the initiatives led by Haitian people and groups

2) If we contribute aid to a foreign agency, demand they post their decisions and relationships with local groups

3) Solidarity, not charity

4) Address the root causes, including neoliberal policies our governments enforced

5) Demand that our aid has real participation by local groups, not just doing the work but setting priorities and identifying how the work is to get done

6) Actually reinforce human capacity – making sure this time expertise is shared with a critical mass of Haitian actors, who can and should be the ones making decisions

7) Link humanitarian aid to development (not the old, failed neoliberal model), and disaster preparedness

The People’s Democratic Patriotic Movement (MPDP in Haitian Creole) issued a statement also on 7 October, saying that: “The government and local authorities must not tolerate, or allow any international, multilateral, bilateral, or non-governmental organisation to side step the authority of the State or local organisations to coordinate and manage in their place. Yes, the country needs aid and solidarity to get through this bad situation Matthew got us deeper into. But it’s not a reason to accept anyone using this pretext to descend more deeply under occupation/domination!”

Some are calling upon international agencies to take a pledge, to do better this time around, following new minimum standards. Consensus seems to be forming around the importance of supporting local initiatives.

Haitian-led initiatives, properly resourced, can make a difference. Chenet Jean-Baptise, the director of ITECA, based in Gressier, the location of the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake, visited the over 800 homes built since then. Only one of them had roof damage. The same cannot be said of emergency shelters offered by international NGOs.

This is going to be an ongoing story. It is important to remember that in the disaster narratives – as well as the actions they inspire – that Haitian people and institutions need to be framed as central to this process.


This is an updated version of an article that was first published on Common Dreams.