Just over two weeks ago, on October 4th, 2016, Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Haiti. Wind gusts over 130 miles per hour made Matthew the first Category 4 storm with such strong winds since Hurricane Cleo in 1964. Unrest due to widespread local frustration with both aid effectiveness and intention are on the rise. Ban Ki-Moon recently arrived in the country to assess the damage and humanitarian need, and on the day of his arrival, protesters reportedly threw rocks at food aid trucks, and UN peacekeepers broke up the dissenters with tear gas.
For many observers in positions of less crisis and greater privilege, that frustration is difficult to comprehend. It is easy to condemn Haitians for opposing the actions of aid workers, or apparently protesting attempts to deliver aid. However, in order to find productive, humanitarian ways to assist in one’s own capacity, one first needs to recognize and validate Haitians’ frustrations. This, of course, necessitates a basic understanding of the recent history of aid, development, and foreign involvement in Haiti.
The ineffectiveness of aid following Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake is well-documented. Jonathan Katz, an Associated Press correspondent who was in Haiti at the time of the devastating event and covered the response by politicians, aid workers, and celebrities alike, recently wrote a book addressing the $16.3 billion dollars in international aid pledges that left Haitians’ needs and wealthy countries’ promises unfulfilled. The American Red Cross infamously raised over $500 million and reportedly built only six houses, to which Port-au-Prince resident Jean Jean Flaubert stated in 2015 that “the Red Cross has not intervened here at all. If you’re talking about change, people should not be living [in tents] still.”
By the end of 2010, Katz writes, a million people were still homeless, political riots were on the rise, and a cholera epidemic, introduced by UN peacekeepers, was spreading. As the situation in Haiti post-earthquake is still developing, all three of these issues are being exacerbated by Matthew’s destruction and the public’s unwillingness to accept another round of failed aid projects. The Haitian government has reported that 1.4 million people in Haiti are in need of humanitarian assistance, and that over 120,000 families lost their homes in the storm. USAID and the UN have already announced measures to provide aid to the country, but the Washington Post reported just four days ago that a local man insisted “somebody is getting help but it is not us” as UN peacekeeping trucks passed him by.
Why is international aid so ineffective in Haiti? Surely, visits by diplomats, speeches by leaders and public fundraising campaigns by celebrities and NGOs are not ill-intentioned. But aid contracts that promise to construct whole communities of weather-proof homes, rebuild infrastructure to improve access to rural areas and mitigate the spread of cholera are highly lucrative; competition over who can offer the best development project package is high in crises such as this. There are jobs to be done, and since development as we now know it is a profit-making enterprise, funders have their own employees and economic future in mind when creating aid projects. This is not to say they purposefully take advantage of Haitian peoples, or malevolently misspend aid money to divert needed assistance; the fact of the matter is simply that people who aren’t Haitian do not know what Haitians want and need.
So, when considering this and any other post-disaster reconstruction efforts, always keep the wants and needs of local peoples in their own interpretations in mind. Don’t just show up; don’t just try to buy or send supplies that you think might be helpful. Read this post by Haiti Advocacy detailing the best use of your aid intentions. Read another post by a native Haitian and former development worker with specific organizations to donate to. Support grassroots initiatives led by organizations such as this one that keep Haitians’ interest in mind. Finally, read Haitian publications and perspectives on the issue. As Woy Magazine reporter Nathalie Cerin insisted, “helping Haiti cannot happen without listening to, knowing, and understanding Haitians, and certainly not through stripping people of their dignity and agency.” The first step in reorienting our post-disaster response is listening to the people we aim to help.