Haiti Earthquake Revitalizes Uncertainties About Who Can and Should Lead the Aid Effort
On August 14th, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake ravaged southwestern Haiti. Homes, schools, and churches, some standing for hundreds of years, collapsed as the earth shuddered. Ash collected in the crevices of crumpled buildings like powdered snow, creating an artificial winter on the tropical island. Rescue operators sifted through debris as anguished survivors called for neighbors, friends, and family buried under rubble. Makeshift tents and outdoor medical clinics sprung up in open space. The frequency of earthquakes collapses past and present, creating a landscape shaped by disaster that looks timeless, whether in 2010, 2016, or 2021.
The Haitian Civil Protection Agency reports that the earthquake killed over 2,200 and injured over 12,200 people. Some speculate that these records radically underestimate the actual loss of life. Other losses abound as well. Over 30,000 families lost their homes. At least 540,000 children lost their access to safe water, food, and shelter. 24 hospitals lost power, personnel, and resources, leaving thousands marooned from medical aid. Tropical Storm Grace slammed into the south two days after the earthquake, drenching the newly homeless and clogging roads central to aid delivery.
It is a mistake to call disaster in Haiti “natural.” Natural implies inevitable, and the tragedies afflicting Haiti are anything but. The current chaos spotlights the consequences of centuries of exploitation. Founded as a French colony dependent on slave labor, reparations financially yolked Haiti to its former oppressor. Historically, covert and outright U.S. interventions sabotaged the legitimacy of democratically elected leaders who showed insufficient deference to American geopolitical interests. Imperialism dressed as Cold War realpolitik, such as destabilizing President Aristide, isolated Haiti without giving it the recourse of self-reliance. Climate change, overwhelmingly a product of wealthy corporations’ pollution (a hundred companies produce 70% of the global greenhouse gas emissions) leaves Haiti to withstand mounting ecological crises without preventative infrastructure to blunt the blow. The adage “the eyes don't see what the mind doesn’t know” captures the need to contextualize rather than sensationalize Haitian suffering.
The ecological disaster compounds a political one; the earthquake follows the July 7, 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise. The assassination re-trained an international spotlight on the pre-existing paralysis of the courts, intelligence community, police, and other key limbs of government. A culture of corruption enfeebles the Haitian state. Before the assassination, gangs perpetrated a national kidnapping epidemic with virtual impunity. A testament to the frailty and corruption of the national government, gangs act as de facto local police. Philosopher Bruno Latour argued, “facts are produced by force.” Infamous gangs such as G9 an famni make daily, random violence a fact of life in city neighborhoods.
This political disarray raises questions of who should, or even can, spearhead relief efforts. Prior to his assassination, Moise saw his authority wane among Haitians long disenchanted with the national government. After disbanding parliament in January of 2020, the President ruled by decree until his death, in defiance of months of protests about what many understood as a budding dictatorship. Fixation on Moise’s immediate mandate to govern belies Haitians’ deeper mistrust of government at large, long an elite project cordoned off from ordinary Haitians by class, education, and even language. As a small class of educated elite joust for power, little changes for most Haitians. Some accuse the new Prime Minister Ariel Henry, foreign minister under Moise, of unfairly leveraging international support. Wielding a mandate to govern more insured by the Core group than the Haitian public, these critics contend that Henry is merely the freshest version of the same foreign-financed corruption
The Biden administration supported Moise, doing little to dispel accusations that the United States accepts corrupt regimes if they produce pliant allies. Historic precedent legitimizes these criticisms. The United States’ prototypical Cold War foreign policy imposed a bipolarity. Preferring the reality of dictatorship to the potential of socialism, the United States funded the brutal regimes of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The kleptocrats bankrupted the country and openly murdered political opponents. For decades, the raison d’etre of the Haitian state contracted to the needs of two dictators and their cronies. This left the state without the institutional memory or culture to serve Haitians’ varied needs.
The muddled credibility of the national government complicates the relief effort. Organizations such as USAID, UNICEF, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and others pledged to compensate for blindspots in the state response. Critics dismiss the initial response as flat-footed. Two days after the earthquake, New York Times bureau chief for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean Maria Abi-Habib reported that locals described her team as their first foreign interaction. Unpaved, water-clogged roads and gang interference activity obstruct aid groups’ access to vulnerable communities. USAID reported plans to collect and distribute blankets, hygiene kits, kitchen kits, and shelter repair kits to 50,000 people. The agency also reported that the World Food Programme distributed hot meals to 3,020 patients at hospitals in Jérémie and Les Cayes. The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched USS Arlington to buoy the American response. France also contributed to the slow drip of foreign aid, sending a helicopter, 25 soldiers, and a ship carrying foodstuffs and medical supplies. Nonetheless, the magnitude of the crisis– an estimated 500,000 Haitians needing humanitarian assistance– dwarfs this early effort.
This sluggish response invokes the disastrous 2010 earthquake response. Critics contend that the international humanitarian community erected a tentpole industry: a temporary influx in infrastructure and resources designed to sustain the organizations’ presence rather than fuel Haiti’s long-term recovery. The Red Cross built six homes with half a billion dollars in raised relief funds. International organizations defended their mandates before they partnered with local groups equipped with community-specific expertise and trust. Over 93% of humanitarian relief funding remained within the organizations that raised it; the Haitian government only received 1% of aid. Moreover, the UN peacekeeping force MINUSTAH introduced a cholera outbreak that infected almost 10% of the Haitian population and killed 9,000 people. This track record of negligence bankrupted already-impoverished trust in foreign aid. Prime Minister Ariel Henry renounced this history and promised something better in his August 16th declaration that “we will not repeat the same things that were done in 2010. A lot of donations were made to the country, and a lot of money was spent without seeing the impact.” Henry’s own dubious authority corrodes public faith in government promises, suspicions about foreign aid persist. The growing number of aid trucks targeted by Haitians betrays mounting desperation and indicts the pace of the humanitarian response.
With degraded trust in government and international organizations, many Haitians historically turn to the Catholic Church as their social safety net. Despite an up-close understanding of their communities’ needs, most grassroots organizations lack the institutional capacity and donor network to scale up their initiatives. Churches’ access to ecclesiastical funds and a built-in donor network sets them apart: they can increase their projects’ scope without outside assistance. Church aid thus avoids the straitjacket of larger organizations’ quality control requirements. The earthquake crippled this reliable frontline response and further hurt morale by destroying many churches in Les Cayes and surrounding towns. In towns where the Catholic Church is the only face of humanitarianism that locals see and trust, this dealt a blow not only to the logistics but the morale of recovery.
With the national government and international organizations slow to mobilize, local organizations lead the aid response. Lambi, Fonkoze, HaitiOne, the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, the What If Foundation and the Health Equity International St. Boniface Hospital all provided food, water, shelter, medical services, and other staples of disaster relief. Run by Haitians for Haitians, these organizations can treat recovery as a process rather than import. Groups founded and operating within Haiti can link short-run relief to long-run development. Development assistance creates the necessary infrastructure that better equips the country to respond to future disasters, lowering the amount and intensity of emergency relief needed. Letting Haitians lead acknowledges the limits of foreign intervention and lets aid groups focus their energies on producing meaningful relief within these limits.
The fragmentation of the aid response mirrors the fragmentation of authority. Well-intentioned government and army officials must stretch limited resources and fight institutionalized corruption. Local mayors, priests, and aid workers must rally their communities while grappling with their own trauma. International and local aid groups, primed to mistrust one another by historic inequity of partnership, must look at relief as a collaboration rather than a competition for donors. As the Enriquillo-Plantain faultline system becomes more active and climate change rapidly advances from a warning at scientific conferences to a reality requiring a response, the existing aid infrastructure is under growing pressure to change. Haiti’s collection of crises cannot be captured by a cause-and-effect relationship or resolved by clear cut solutions. Nonetheless, re-evaluating how aid is distributed, and who possesses the high-level authority and ground-level trust necessary to identify and respond to communities’ needs, is critical to healing Haiti on terms decided by its own people.