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Learning from Past Mistakes: Humanitarian Aid in Haiti

Wiki Commons
Wiki Commons

Over the past week, many of us have seen the devastation of Hurricane Matthew in our own backyards. It was reported as a Category 5 storm around late September and early October, with winds reaching over 160 miles per hour, and downgraded to a Category 4 storm as it hit land in the Caribbean. The islands are the most vulnerable places where even a Category 2 or 3 storm can cause heavy floods and mudslides that devastate many communities. In the last decade, Haiti has been ravaged by multiple natural disasters including the 2010 earthquake, which reached a magnitude of 7.0 and killed over 300,000 people and displaced over 1.5 million people. This last disaster has negatively affected many of the projects that were implemented to rebuild the country after the earthquake – setting its development goals back several years.

Toussaint Louverture - leader of the Haitian Revolution
Toussaint Louverture – leader of the Haitian Revolution

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. Following its independence from France in 1808, the small island was of interest to the United States government, which sought to set up naval bases there. Between the end of the 1800 and the early 20th century, the Haitian government went through a series of leaders – all of whom were either killed or overthrown before completing their terms. By 1915, the United States had invaded Haiti in order to stabilize the failing government, boost the Haitian economy, and ultimately protect U.S. interests in the Caribbean at the time. However, Haitians came to resent the U.S. occupation of their country because they believed that the U.S. government had changed the constitution, routinely interfered with the legislative process, and enacted laws without consent of the Haitian people. With Haitians’ growing resentment, the United States pulled out of Haiti in 1934.

Then again in 1990, the United States intervened when populist candidate Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the majority vote and came to power. His radical ideology made the U.S. government suspicious of his motives. An opposition party and militia overthrew Aristide’s government which led to the death and destruction of many Haitians and their communities. After pressures from the United Nations and the international community, the U.S. aided Aristide to return to power in 1994 since he had been democratically elected. All aid to Haiti from the U.S. had been stifled until recently.

haiti-oda
U.S. Foreign Aid to Haiti from 2004-2013

Following the earthquake in 2010, governments, non-profit and for-profit organizations, and private donors came together in an effort to rebuild the broken country. Billions of dollars in aid were allotted for emergency relief and long-term development funds. Despite the overwhelming amounts of foreign aid and humanitarian assistance, hundreds of thousands of people continue to be disenfranchised and unable to access basic needs such as food, housing, adequate health care. A large part of this has to do with the relationship between various aid groups and the Haitian government – or lack thereof. The aid organizations that came in to rebuild Haiti bypassed the government and impaired its ability to implement projects to develop its own country.

This has been a larger problem in the development sector, where aid donors don’t rely on governments and local authorities to administer development related projects. This creates division and a lack of accountability – perpetuating aid dependency within these countries. This dependency then creates a system in which recipients of aid are in constant need of foreign assistance to support their country’s economy and social programs. It reduces the function of a democracy and increases the gap between governments and its people, which increases the levels of corruption and abuse of power.

Tent City: aid organizations in the center of the ruined communities after the earthquake in 2010

In Haiti, the reluctance to rely on the government has helped produce a state that is unable to provide basic needs such as healthcare, proper education, infrastructure and employment for its people. Instead, aid and humanitarian groups have taken over these functions. As a result, in the aftermath of the earthquake, there were numerous projects that were all uncoordinated, which led to the poor allocation of funds and neglect of people’s real needs. This inevitably caused further damage by creating rifts between groups and classes of Haitian citizens, as some benefited more than others.

Today, as Haiti seeks to rebuild its country from the ruins of Hurricane Matthew, and the recent cholera outbreak, development aid workers seek to approach reconstruction differently. In a 2014 article, Antonal Mortime, a Haitian human rights activist at the Platform for Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH), stated that in order for long-term sustainability, aid donors must work with the government and existing institutions to ensure accountability and self-sufficiency. It goes back to improving the fundamental principles that founded one of the first nations to free itself from imperial rule.

In the days following the hurricane, humanitarian groups and the international community have already poured tremendous amounts of aid into Haiti by providing food and clean water as the hurricane wiped out almost 90% of the agriculture, healthcare to treat the wounded and those affected by cholera, and numerous workers that help to clean the debris in order to start the reconstruction process. Moving forward, the Haitian government – both at the federal and local level – is aware of the chaos that ensued amid the 2010 humanitarian response in its country, and urges aid workers to go through the government institutions and agencies to implement their projects.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.