Haiti, crises, and the international community

Haiti’s terrible earthquake has given the international community an opportunity to demonstrate where it is capable of effective response. International organizations, national militaries, the media, and non-governmental organizations are all familiar with the business of short-term post-crisis response. The issues at stake are immediate, acute, and highly visible. The cost of making a commitment is fairly clear from the outset: whether you are evacuating people, digging through rubble, providing emergency shelter, or what have you. The response is also essentially apolitical: there is no blame to be assigned after such a natural disaster, and there are no clear partisan divisions in terms of what our response ought to be. Certainly, the international assistance is laudable and valuable. Predictions that a second wave of death would follow the Asian tsunami (on account of hunger, disease, etc) were partly defied as a consequence of energetic international aid efforts.

Of course, while a crisis illustrates what the international community is reasonably good at, it indirectly highlights areas in which responses are far more hesitant and ineffective. While the movement of tectonic plates is not a political phenomenon, the question of why Port-au-Prince was so vulnerable has political implications. The 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan was similarly powerful, but killed fewer people: about 6,500 compared with 40,000 plus in Haiti. Surely, construction standards and overall levels of societal wealth are part of the explanation for that. Comparisons can also be drawn to disasters that lack the features that make this one so politically simple: those that exist for an extended period, require uncertain and potentially large commitments of resources and political capital, and which lack the ability to create an immediate emotional response in the voting and tax-paying public.

While Haiti will provide incremental experience in acute crisis management, it is worth asking whether it can show the international community anything about longer-term risk management. In an increasingly interdependent world, the capabilities of the international community arguably need to expand beyond just sweeping up the broken glass, though doing so calls into question issues like sovereignty and the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine that seems to have become an unexpected casualty of the second Iraq war. Certainly, the U.N. cannot create seismic standards and hope they will be enforced in poor countries; at best, the U.N. and other such international organizations might be able to get a better handle on transboundary issues, which can only become more acute as the world is ever more densely populated, and the total material withdrawals and waste deposits from humanity into the biosphere continue to grow.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

27 thoughts on “Haiti, crises, and the international community”

  1. China: Disaster Response and Image Abroad

    January 15, 2010 | 1512 GMT

    Fifteen hours after a massive earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, a Chinese disaster response team left Beijing for Port-au-Prince, one of the first disaster response teams sent to the area. The deployment reflects not only the evolution of China’s rapid response capabilities abroad but also the development of Chinese political decision-making. Rather than rely on sympathetic rhetoric and financial aid, China is moving toward a more responsive and physically active role on the global stage.

    The China National Earthquake Disaster Emergency Rescue Team arrived in Port-au-Prince aboard an Air China flight at 2:20 a.m. local time Jan. 14, 33 hours after the earthquake struck. The team of 68 people ranged from earthquake experts and medical and rescue personnel to reporters and officials from the Foreign Ministry and Public Security Bureau. And with the team came more than 10 tons of materials, including food, search and communications equipment and medical supplies.

    This is the sixth overseas deployment of the Chinese rescue team since it was established in 2001. Prior deployments include Algeria and Iran in 2003, Indonesia in 2004 and 2006 and Pakistan in 2005. In none of these deployments, however, did the team move as rapidly as it did to Haiti. According to Chinese media reports, it took just seven hours after the earthquake for the government to issue the deployment order, and when the team arrived in Haiti, it was only 10 hours behind the U.S. rescue team, which is based much closer and has far more experience in international relief efforts.

  2. Here is an interesting post: “10 things the US can do for Haiti”.

    Also “Haiti disastor capitalism alert”

    The thread that unites these two articles is that the disaster should not be used as an excuse to undermine the country’s rights to self-determination.

  3. That does raise the question of what self-determination is good for. Is it a good thing in and of itself, regardless of the consequences for the population? Or is self-determination justified by the welfare of the populace, with an argument like: “If outsiders interfere, they will only make things worse?”

    Comparing Haiti with the Dominican Republic – a state that shares the same island – suggests that Haiti could be doing a better job of improving the lives of its citizens. To what extent should that be a concern for outsiders? And what sort of action should be taken, if the outside world has a legitimate role to play?

  4. Haiti – Dominican Republic

    GDP per capita (PPP): $1,317 – $8,672

    HDI (2007): 0.532 – 0.777

    Infant mortality: 59.69 deaths/1,000 live births – 25.96 deaths/1,000 live births

    Life expectancy at birth: 60.78 years – 73.7 years

    HIV/AIDS – adult prevalence rate: 2.2% (2007 est.) – 1.1% (2007 est.)

    Literacy: 52.9% – 87%

  5. JANUARY 18, 2010 2:16 AM

    Cruise ship docks at private beach in Haiti for barbeque and water sports

    The Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’ ship Independence of the Seas went ahead with its scheduled stop at a fenced-in private Haitian beach surrounded by armed guards, leaving its passengers to “cut loose” on the beach, just a few kilometers from one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the region’s history. The ship’s owners justified it as a humanitarian call, because the ship also delivered 40 palettes of relief supplies while its passengers frolicked on zip-lines and ate barbeque within the 12-foot-high fence’s perimeter

  6. Haitian democracy has already been overthrown once by North America this millennia. I expect the disaster relief effort is a ruse for imposing some kind of even more U.S. friendly militaristic regime.

    Or, perhaps the powers that be don’t think they can afford another Katrina.

  7. A Fault Is Not a Sin
    It’s idiotic to blame anything other than geology for the Haitian earthquake.
    By Christopher Hitchens
    Posted Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010, at 11:55 AM ET

    On Nov. 1, 1755—the feast of All Saint’s Day—a terrifying combination of earthquake and tsunami shattered the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon. Numerous major churches were destroyed and many devout worshippers along with them. This cataclysmic event was a spur to two great enterprises: the European Enlightenment and the development of seismology. Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were only some of those who reasoned that no thinkable deity could have desired or ordained the obliteration of Catholic Lisbon, while other thinkers—Immanuel Kant among them—began to inquire into the possible natural causes of such events.

    Today, we can clearly identify the “fault” that runs under the Atlantic Ocean and still puts Portugal and other countries at risk, and it took only a few more generations before there was a workable theory of continental drift. We live on a cooling planet with a volcanic interior that is insecurely coated with a thin crust of grinding tectonic plates. Earthquakes and tsunamis are to be expected and can even to some degree be anticipated. It’s idiotic to ask whose fault it is. The Earth’s thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone. These geological dislocations have no human-behavioral cause. The believers should relax; no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods “why” such disasters occur. A fault is not the same as a sin.

    Haiti Is a Man-Made Disaster
    Recovery will require a profound cultural and political change.
    By Anne Applebaum
    Posted Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010, at 12:13 PM ET

    For the past several days, I have found myself unable to look at the photographs from Haiti. I have also found that when I start reading an article datelined Port-au-Prince, I have to force myself to read to the end of it. I have donated money to Doctors Without Borders, on the grounds that it has been in Haiti a long time and will be able to use the cash quickly. However, I have no illusions about my tiny donation, or about the organization’s ability to help. I have no illusions about anyone’s ability to help, for this is not just a natural disaster: It is a man-made disaster first and foremost, and so it will remain.

    Though the earthquake was a powerful one, its impact was multiplied many, many times by the weakness of civil society and the absence of rule of law in Haiti. As Roger Noriega has written, “You can literally see [the] dysfunction from space”: Satellite photos of Hispaniola, the island split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, show green forests on the Dominican side and bare, deforested hills on the Haitian side. Mudslides and collapsing houses were routine in Haiti, even before this disaster. Laws designed to prevent erosion, and building codes designed to prevent criminally shoddy construction, were ignored. The rickety slums of Port-au-Prince were constructed in ravines and on steep, unstable hills. When they collapsed, they collapsed completely.

  8. “So weak were Haiti’s public institutions, literally and figuratively, that nothing is left of them, either. Parliament, churches, hospitals, and government offices no longer exist.* The archbishop is dead. The head of the U.N. mission is dead. There is a real possibility that violent gangs will emerge to take their place, to control food supplies, to loot what remains to be looted. There is a real possibility, within the coming days, of epidemics, mass starvation, and civil war.

    Haiti does not have these kinds of internal resources [like Indonesia and the United States have], which means that all the reconstruction expertise will have to come from outside. Most of it will come from the United States. Yet for all the obvious historical reasons, this outside expertise will be unacceptable to many Haitians, who will see it as a colonial imposition, unwarranted interference in local affairs, cultural imperialism. Armed U.S. Marines may wind up in fire fights with those violent gangs. Local elites—those who remain—may plot to swindle the aid missions out of their food and money.”

  9. Haiti: A Historical Perspective
    It’s not culture or curse, but a difficult history of occupation and environmental degradation that explain the country’s woes.

    By Karen Fragala Smith | Newsweek Web Exclusive
    Jan 16, 2010 | Updated: 11:38 a.m. ET J

    Long before the biggest natural disaster in Haiti’s history shook Port-au-Prince on the afternoon of Jan. 12, the Caribbean nation of 10 million struggled to feed and shelter its expanding population. More than a million families relied daily on international food aid, and the capital sprawled with shantytowns build by unemployed farmhands who had migrated to the city in search of work. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, but its culture and history are undeniably rich. Under French rule in the 1700s, Haiti was the wealthiest colony in the New World and represented more than a quarter of France’s economy. After a Haitian slave revolt defeated the French army in 1801, the newly independent nation became the first country in the New World to abolish slavery. But Haiti’s fortunes ebbed when the 20th century brought three decades of American occupation, multiple corrupt regimes, natural disasters, environmental devastation, and the scourge of HIV. Newsweek discussed Haiti’s storied past and uncertain future with Michele Wucker, the executive director of the World Policy Institute and author of Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola.

  10. The articles above seem to raise a series of questions: Whose fault is it that Haiti was in such bad shape, even before the earthquake? To what extent is that relevent, when it comes to how international actors should respond? What can the international community do to maximize the chances of life improving for Haitians, in the years ahead?

  11. The Unluckiest Country

    The second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere has been wracked by coups, dictators, and foreign interventions throughout nearly its entire history. But you don’t have to agree with Pat Robertson to agree that even by Haitian standards, the last few decades have been particularly tragic.


    The Duvalier Dictatorship

    Years: 1957-1986

    The catastrophe: After a period of instability in the mid-20th century following a bloody war with the Dominican Republic and the temporary U.S. military occupation of the island, Haiti had a glimmer of hope when François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a popular health minister, was elected president (in a military-rigged election). But Duvalier was not exactly the humanitarian ruler Haitians had hoped for. Duvalier quickly set about consolidating his power over the state and security services, enriching himself and his cronies through bribery and extortion, and building his own personality cult. He lined his coffers with millions in U.S. aid money during his early years in power. An estimated 30,000 Haitians were killed during Duvalier’s reign of terror and many more fled into exile.

    In the fall of 2008, Haiti was hit by hurricanes, and Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike in the space of a month, leaving more than 800 dead and more than a million homeless. The long-suffering city of Gonaives again took the brunt of the devastation. It was rendered largely uninhabitable, and government ministers said much of it would simply have to be moved. Sixty percent of the starving country’s harvest was destroyed, and the debris was still being cleared this year.

    While other countries in the region, including the Dominican Republic and Cuba, were hit almost as badly by the storms, Haiti’s death toll was nearly 10 times higher because of environmental degradation that exacerbated the flooding and the government’s inability to respond.

  12. I was pleased to see China’s prompt response and a public display that the country can be an international leader in humanitarian efforts. Haitian people have suffered tremendously and the earthquake is a huge tragedy. I hope that all efforts will be made to provide for the needs of the hurt and homeless. It will mean virtually rebuilding the country. It has been a political disaster for so long, I hope that some improvements can be made and that there is enough will among the Haitians to make some changes in all aspects of their country with the help of lots of skilled people.

  13. I believe that such disasters are where the logistical and engineering capabilities of the military can best be utilized, both at home as in the Canadian Armed Forces engineering efforts to prevent the flooding of the Red River in Winnipeg and now in Haiti.

  14. “Rebuilding Haiti will be a tough haul. Major institutions—the national cathedral, the presidential palace—lie toppled. Countless other homes, stores, office buildings and more churches have been reduced to rubble. Debris will need to be cleared before new structures can take their place. Those buildings still standing will need to be tested for safety. Making things worse, Haiti has a notoriously weak state—the sort that couldn’t enforce building codes, or prevent the deforestation that has left the soil unable to deflect routine flooding. Indeed, two-thirds of the buildings in Port-au-Prince were unsafe before the Jan. 12 earthquake. “The challenge for Haiti as compared to New York after 9/11, for example, is the institutional context,” says Diane Davis, a professor of urban planning at MIT who has worked on post-disaster reconstruction in several Latin American cities. “It’s very hard to project a timeline for rebuilding because the situation is so unstable.”

    Yet many urban planners, architects and developers are seeing a silver lining in the near-total destruction of a major Haitian city. “It would be a small silver lining if in three years, we see a more sustainable Haiti, with energy efficient, healthy, disaster resistant buildings that makes the nation more resilient to future electricity shortages, public health crises and disasters,” says Matthew Peterson, CEO of Global Green, a sustainable development consulting firm with strong ties to the New Orleans recovery effort. Victoria Harris, CEO of Article 25, a nonprofit architectural consulting firm whose name derives from the United Nations charter naming the built environment as a human right, discussed the opportunity for Haiti to build a truly modern city on the ruins of what came before. “Buildings will affect what people need, want, do—and we want to ensure that they are technically serving their purpose,” she said. But “there is also a chance to build something that is valuable to the community.””

  15. Should imperialism really be our big worry now?

    What, if anything, would lead to the damaged areas being rebuilt in a more robust way, and governed better in the future?

  16. “The TV networks and major papers gamely played along. Forget hunger, dehydration, gangrene, septicemia—the real concern was “the security situation,” the possibility of chaos, violence, looting. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of on-the-ground accounts from people who did not have to answer to editors described Haitians taking care of one another, digging through rubble with their bare hands, caring for injured loved ones—and strangers—in the absence of outside help. Even the evidence of “looting” documented something that looked more like mutual aid: The photograph that accompanied a Sunday New York Times article reporting “pockets of violence and anarchy” showed men standing atop the ruins of a store, tossing supplies to the gathered crowd.

    The guiding assumption, though, was that Haitian society was on the very edge of dissolving into savagery. Suffering from “progress-resistant cultural influences” (that’s David Brooks finding a polite way to call black people primitive), Haitians were expected to devour one another and, like wounded dogs, to snap at the hands that fed them. As much as any logistical bottleneck, the mania for security slowed the distribution of aid.

  17. “This leaves the more disturbing question of why the Obama administration chose to respond as if they were there to confront an insurgency, rather than to clear rubble and distribute antibiotics and MREs. The beginning of an answer can be found in what Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell, calls “elite panic”—the conviction of the powerful that their own Hobbesian corporate ethic is innate in all of us, that in the absence of centralized authority, only cannibalism can reign.”

  18. “Another lesson is that survivors are generally too dazed and weak to riot. An exaggerated fear of violent disorder seemed to be another reason why aid was slow. A few hundred desperate people scavenged in the rubble in a downtown shopping street. There were reports of gang leaders who escaped when the jail collapsed resurfacing in shanty towns from which they had been flushed out by UN troops in 2006. But generally Port-au-Prince was calm. Haitians were helping each other. Many crowded onto buses to seek refuge with relatives in rural areas.

    Brazil’s ambassador to Haiti, Igor Kipman, said that the UN peacekeeping force had security “perfectly under control” and did not need the help of the American troops. The Americans, too, stressed that their job was logistics. But the potential for friction with Brazil remained. Barack Obama’s administration is “trying to pull off a delicate balancing act by offering massive humanitarian relief while avoiding giving the impression that they are taking over Haiti,” says Daniel Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank in Washington, DC. The build-up of troops may have caused short-term delays in aid deliveries, but will pay off if they quickly open transport routes without which nothing would reach the needy anyway. This relief operation was always going to be unusually slow and chaotic. But Haitians cannot afford for it to remain so.”

  19. After the earthquake
    A plan for Haiti
    Haiti’s government cannot rebuild the country. A temporary authority needs to be set up to do it

    Jan 21st 2010
    From The Economist print edition

    MORE than a week after the earth convulsed beneath it, Haiti has still to plumb the depths of suffering and want. The numbers are still only more-or-less informed guesses, but their magnitude is grim: perhaps 200,000 killed, 250,000 more injured and some 3m in desperate need of help. The generosity of the world’s response has also been profound. Barack Obama led the way, dispatching 16,000 American troops and marines, but others, from Europe to Brazil, Cuba, China and Israel, responded too. Immediate promises of aid added up to around nearly $1 billion.

    The urgent task is to connect this supply of help with the demand. That is proving extraordinarily hard (see article). Seven days after the earthquake, the United Nations had got food to only 200,000 people. Lessons from other disasters are not always relevant to Haiti. The Asian tsunami, for example, struck a ribbon of remote, mainly rural, areas. The governments of the affected nations could lead the relief effort. But Haiti’s institutions were weak even before the disaster. Because the quake devastated the capital, both the government and the UN, which has been trying to build a state in Haiti since 2004, were decapitated, losing buildings and essential staff. So did many NGOs. The president, René Préval, and his cabinet have been reduced to meeting in a police station.

  20. Seven questions for Jeffrey Sachs
    * Jan 25th 2010, 19:34 by R.M. | NEW YORK

    JEFFREY SACHS is considered one of the world’s foremost development economists. He is also one of the most productive. Mr Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, an itinerant adviser to poor-country governments, and special adviser to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general. Mr Sachs has authored numerous articles, reports and books, including “The End of Poverty” and “Common Wealth”. Most recently he has put forth a strategy for rebuilding Haiti. On Friday I spoke to Mr Sachs over the phone and asked him some questions about the rebuilding effort and America’s role in helping Haiti recover.

  21. “The vast majority of Haitians who have escaped poverty have done so by leaving the country. Pick any reasonable poverty line for Haiti; the vast majority of Haitians above it no longer live there. In a study I did with Harvard’s Lant Pritchett, we chose a bare-bones poverty line of $10 per day (measured as a living standard at U.S. prices). That’s total destitution — just a third of the $30 per day that the United States considers “poverty” for a single adult. Eight out of 10 Haitians above that line currently live in the United States.

    Most of this represents the effect of emigration on poverty. Only 1 percent of people in Haiti live on more than $10 per day, and there is no evidence that most Haitian emigrants come from the extreme tip-top of the income distribution, so very few people who emigrated would have an income that high if they had been forced to stay home. A typical low-skill male Haitian in the United States earns at least six times what he could earn in Haiti. And all of this just accounts for Haitians in the United States. Include the roughly 100,000 more who are in Canada and Western Europe, almost all of whom live on over $10 per day, and it’s even starker: The vast majority of Haitians who escaped poverty did so by leaving Haiti, not as a result of anything that happened in the country. “

  22. Rebuilding Haiti
    Island in the sun
    Use solar power, not firewood

    Mar 4th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

    IT MIGHT seem callous in the aftermath of 230,000 deaths in January’s earthquake to talk about the opportunity offered by the rebuilding of Haiti. But merely restoring the most benighted country in the Americas to its previous misery would be culpable. Among the opportunities is to improve Haiti’s energy infrastructure.

    Lacking domestic fossil-fuel supplies, Haiti was spending some $500m a year importing them. Its energy infrastructure was dismal, most Haitians having no access to electricity. Of those who do, perhaps half are hooked up illegally. The grid lost about half the generated energy, and missed out swathes of the country.

    It would be far better for Haiti to switch to solar power, argues Jigar Shah, the bumptious chief executive of the Carbon War Room, a ginger-group in Washington, DC, who formerly ran SunEdison, a solar power company. His proposal is to start by using off-the-peg solar systems with associated batteries to do much of the work that diesel generators do in post-calamity situations (such as power hospitals). These should be backed up with millions of solar lanterns, which shine by night and recharge by day.

    After that, move on to rebuilding houses with cheap solar panels attached, and provide rural villages with minigrids that will allow people to use the power which is generated by the sun, by the wind, or by other means. The cost of such distributed generation systems, Mr Shah says, has fallen by half in the past decade, and they can be set up almost as fast as diesel generators. There are already Haitian enterprises which know how to install solar cells, and they could train others.

  23. Silent Coup in Haiti, Part I
    Experts, organizers assess the country’s democratic crisis

    “Fanmi Lavalas, has been banned from the November 28, 2010, Presidential and Parliamentary elections.

    Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas, or FL) grew out of the Lavalas movement that brought down the US-backed Duvalier dictatorship and ushered Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1991. In 2000, during the last democratic election the party was permitted to participate in, it won 90 per cent of Haitians’ votes, the equivalent of Canada’s Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Green parties combined; or the equivalent of the US’s combined electoral support for Republicans and Democrats.”


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