Comment: Natural disasters aren’t Haiti’s only problem

Haiti’s vulnerability to quakes and storms was worsened by colonialism, politics and even foreign aid.

By Emmanuela Douyon and Alyssa Sepinwall / Special To The Washington Post

On Aug. 14, a magnitude-7.2 earthquake struck Haiti’s southern peninsula. Coming a month after the assassination of Haiti’s president and amid a severe coronavirus surge, the quake was the latest blow to the Caribbean nation.

Haiti has still not fully recovered from the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people. And on Aug. 16, Tropical Depression Grace thundered into Haiti, bucketing rain onto earthquake survivors sleeping outside and causing hillsides and roads to crumble.

Why do tragedies keep afflicting Haiti? Or, as commentators keep repeating, why can’t Haiti “catch a break”? What went wrong in the post-2010 reconstruction effort, after individuals and governments from across the globe pledged billions of dollars in aid, and how can things be different this time?

Haitians have been subjected to more than their share of calamities recently and in the past. These tragedies are not unlucky coincidences. They have common causes, both natural and historical.

Haiti has the double misfortune of sitting atop two major fault zones and lying in the middle of the Caribbean hurricane belt. Though tropical storms have always threatened Haiti, climate change has accelerated their pace and ferocity. The same regions of Haiti leveled by this earthquake were still laboring to recover from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.

Many specialists are quick to point out, however, that earthquakes and hurricanes in Haiti have historically been “man-made disasters” as much as natural ones. For one thing, Haiti suffers from more erosion after storms and earthquakes because of deforestation policies begun by French colonizers in the 17th century, who clear-cut forests to build plantations. Without trees rooting soil firmly in place, earthquakes and landslides have far more devastating consequences in Haiti than in the neighboring Dominican Republic, where Spanish colonizers did not uproot trees with the same aggression.

Other factors amplify the effect of natural disasters in Haiti. Wealthier nations with stronger central governments can mandate the construction of earthquake-resistant buildings, which protect residents during natural disasters. And after catastrophic natural events in wealthy countries, hospitals with advanced technology can save survivors at much greater rates. In Haiti, the number of casualties since last weekend’s earthquake is climbing, with ongoing infrastructure challenges compounded by Grace’s onslaught.

Political factors, such as the weakness of the Haitian government, have also worsened Haiti’s ability to tackle the devastating effects of earthquakes and hurricanes. This weakness too has resulted from historical factors, including centuries of foreign interference and exploitation. Beginning after Columbus’s arrival, the Spanish enslaved the Indigenous Taino people, hoping to mine gold from the island, which they called Hispaniola and which the Tainos called Ayiti. Within a few decades, violence and disease devastated the Tainos, reducing their population from as many as 3,77 million in 1496 to 125 in 1570. But the Spanish, then the French, simply turned to a new population to exploit, forcing Africans into slavery. They endured terrifying punishments and backbreaking labor on sugar plantations, while their enslavers reaped huge profits.

Aug. 14 is not only the date of the earthquake; but the day on which the Haitian Revolution, the largest and most important slave revolt in modern history, was first conceived in 1791. During this event (1791-1804), Haitians overthrew their French oppressors, while simultaneously fighting off Spanish and British forces who sought to capture Saint-Domingue (colonial Haiti) for themselves. When Napoleon’s armies tried to reimpose slavery, Haitians successfully defeated them and declared independence.

This victory should have portended a great future for Haiti. But because slaveholding nations around the Atlantic, including the United States, feared that a successful Haiti would inspire enslaved people to revolt elsewhere, Haiti became a pariah nation, often characterized in racist terms. France only agreed to recognize Haiti’s independence once those victimized by slavery reimbursed their former oppressors 150 million francs for their lost “property” (that is, themselves). Because the country did not have this sum on hand, it needed to contract loans at high interest rates, which hampered Haiti’s economy into the 20th century.

Haiti later suffered under U.S. occupation, from 1915 to 1934, initiated in part to ensure that U.S. banks would continue to receive Haitian loan payments. During this period, U.S. officials and Marines, whose writings abounded with racist epithets about Haitians, forced them into unpaid labor building roads or working for pennies a day on plantations owned by companies such as the Haitian American Sugar Co. Even after the U.S. withdrew its troops in 1934, it continued to interfere in Haitian politics, sometimes working to remove leaders whose populist policies were seen as conflicting with U.S. interests. In contrast, the murderous Duvalier dictatorship (1957-1986) received U.S. support, because it promised to oppose communism and not let Haiti become the next Cuba. This interference left the Haitian government weak and dependent on international approval.

The mid-20th century also inaugurated international development policies that would increase the harm done by earthquakes. Haitians had suffered from sizable quakes for centuries, for instance in 1751, 1770 and 1842. Nineteenth century Haitian governments sought to enforce building codes that would result in less destruction. But efforts in the 20th century to encourage Haitians to industrialize drew people from rural areas to improvised housing in Port-au-Prince, which had seen its population grow from 150,000 in the 1950s to 3 million in 2010. Prioritizing industrialization over enforcing safe building practices has only increased the death toll from earthquakes.

The creation of the non-governmental organization system in the mid-20th century further damaged the country’s ability to engage in comprehensive disaster preparedness. As Claire Payton has shown, this system, created by U.S. diplomat Melville Osborne in 1965, formed “a parallel state” that weakened Haitian institutions. Osborne’s plan bypassed Haiti’s central government by making it easier for U.S. businesses to set up factories in the country while leaving Haitians dependent on foreigners for many social services. As Payton explains, “Weakening Haitian institutions and state-building capacity was a feature, not a bug” of the NGO system.

Instead of the Haitian government controlling its own territory, Haiti has been filled with thousands of NGOs operating under foreign protection, including by United Nations and U.S. troops. As journalist Jonathan Katz noted, “The aid groups’ power to act without oversight or accountability was almost absolute. There was no way for Haitians to appeal an NGO decision, prosecute a bad soldier or vote an unwanted USAID project out of a neighborhood.”

Government by a “republic of NGOs” proved particularly deadly after the 2010 earthquake. As filmmaker Raoul Peck illustrated in his 2013 documentary “Fatal Assistance,” well-meaning foreigners ignored Haitian needs, contributing to a mounting death toll in the period after the earthquake. The inefficiency of foreign NGO aid after 2010 was staggering. When people ask, “where did the billions raised go?” it is important to recognize that little of it reached Haitians.

Instead of hiring Haitian professionals who understood local communities and building conditions, big-name NGOs paid enormous salaries to newly arrived expats who knew little about the country. The Red Cross raised nearly half a billion dollars and built six houses. More generally, the Haitian Interim Reconstruction Commission, led by former President Bill Clinton, effectively sidelined Haitian officials and civil society, while trying to implement neoliberal policies for Haiti. In one example, the HIRC wooed a South Korean garment company to create an industrial park with “jobs” for Haitians, but these low-paying jobs displaced sustainable ones and harmed Haiti’s environment. Meanwhile, the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti brought cholera; and rapes of Haitian women, men and children. The United Nations has avoided accountability for these harms.

Haitians do need additional foreign aid after the latest earthquake. Logistical assistance to reach and treat survivors will be necessary. In the upcoming weeks and months, foreign help must be given carefully, heeding the lessons of the 2010 earthquake and with an understanding of the deeper history of Haiti. When funds flow in, they will probably do more good going to local organizations with proven histories of helping Haitians after disasters rather than to big-name NGOs that have squandered money. Donors can also prioritize hiring Haitian professionals rather than importing foreign workers without local knowledge or a genuine investment in Haiti’s long-term success.

Haitians from other parts of the country and world have already begun arriving in southern Haiti to begin the staggering work of rescue, medical treatment and debris removal. To avoid repeating the mistakes of 2010, anyone who wishes to help Haitians must listen to and work in genuine partnership with them, so that Haitians may begin to exit the cyclone of repeated catastrophes.

Emmanuela Douyon is a specialist in economic development and the Executive Director of Policité. Alyssa Sepinwall is professor of history at California State University – San Marcos, and author of “Haitian History: New Perspectives and Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games.”

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