Repeated Mistakes in Haiti

By Graham Sowa

Photo: Scarlett Compton

Between Africa and Europe there is a fault named the Azores-Gibraltar.  On November 1, 1755 a massive movement along this fault caused the Great Lisbon Earthquake.  Earthquakes had happened along this fault before, but this one was special because of the timing.  It happened during the Enlightenment.

New ways of thinking about the natural world and human adaptation to that world were the great achievements to be pulled from this magnificent calamity.  Architectural designs were inspired to prevent damage from future earthquakes.  It was the first earthquake studied scientifically by different disciplines, giving rise to geology and seismology as academic subjects.

Like the Great Lisbon Earthquake the Haiti earthquake of 2010 caused widespread devastation in the seat of government during a rapid period of technological development for our species, in the contemporary case the digital revolution.  However, unlike Portugal in the 18th century, we are failing to learn from our repeated mistakes in Haiti.  The methodology comes across as very pre-enlightenment.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) continue to ineffectively rule the reconstruction process.  Few voices in the aid and development industry are speaking out for radical change in how the Haitian government, and thus the Haitian people, should take control of the fruitless reconstruction process from the multinational NGOs.

Timothy Schwartz has been one of the few not afraid to publish material the NGO industrial complex would rather remain in dusty files.  Schwartz’s book Travesty in Haiti and post-earthquake field surveys have inspired little more than condemnation by multinational NGOs that rely on hyper-inflated, make-believe statistics for their fundraising purposes as they refuse to be honest with their donors, stake holders, or clients.

Photo: Scarlett Compton

Mark Schuller is the author of several pre-earthquake publications about NGO culture in Haiti including Gluing Globalization: NGOs as Intermediaries in Haiti and Invasion or Infusion: Understanding the Role of NGOs in Contemporary Haiti.  Mr. Schuller’s work should have been required reading for anyone wanting to step foot or put resources into Haitian reconstruction.  From all apparent observation his studies were ignored by the industry.

Most concerning is that the UN Special Envoy to Haiti, President Bill Clinton, and his deputy, Dr. Paul Farmer, have been largely silent on the failure of the NGO industry in post-earthquake Haiti.

Dr. Farmer, a man who Tracey Kidder once said “would cure the world” on a book cover, seems to be at peace with President Clinton’s continued failures in trying to get housing for Haitians with the billions of donated dollars for reconstruction.   After a housing expo that was given a thorough lambasting by seasoned Haiti reporters as a representation of everything that is wrong with the reconstruction process President Clinton announced 73 million USD for new housing.  This will benefit only thousands of the hundreds of thousands of Haitians still homeless.  And none of this money will go toward repairs of existing structures that were only damaged by the quake.

Photo: Scarlett Compton

To his credit Dr. Farmer did lend a blurb to the back of Timothy Schwartz’s book:  “This book knocks it out of the park.”  Out of the park is exactly where the multinational NGO leaders want books like Travesty in Haiti to remain.  Self-reflection and admission of errors has no place in their game.

Non-governmental organizations in Haiti are an industry.  And industry does not self regulate.  Therefore perhaps a few measures should be put in order to reestablish the Haitian state as the holder of the mandate of the Haitian people over multinational NGOs.  Four ideas come to mind:

  1. Haiti prioritize enforcement of all laws governing NGOs currently on the books
  2. A law that requires the distribution of any aid-in-kind be accompanied by a monetary offer of equal value to the aid.  The recipient would choose if they want the object being offered or the money and NGOs would be forced to operate in a marketplace with their consumers.
  3. A removal of all tax-exempt status from multinational NGOs
  4. A law requiring NGOs and the United Nations to pay any and all workers the Haitian minimum wage and a ban on food-for-work programs

Just a month after the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755 the King of Portugal had his Prime Minister present four plans to rebuild the collapsed, drowned, and burned city of Lisbon.  A plan was chosen, and within a year the debris was cleared, new streets were being laid, and seismically protected constructions were being raised.  It was a successful state undertaking.


5 thoughts on “Repeated Mistakes in Haiti

  • Hello and thank you for an excellent website. So-called environmentally induced migration is multi-level problem. According to Essam El-Hinnawi definition form 1985 environmental refugees as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. The fundamental distinction between `environmental migrants` and `environmental refugees` is a standpoint of contemporsry studies in EDPs.

    According to Bogumil Terminski it seems reasonable to distinguish the general category of environmental migrants from the more specific (subordinate to it) category of environmental refugees.

    Environmental migrants, therefore, are persons making a short-lived, cyclical, or longerterm change of residence, of a voluntary or forced character, due to specific environmental factors. Environmental refugees form a specific type of environmental migrant.

    Environmental refugees, therefore, are persons compelled to spontaneous, short-lived, cyclical, or longer-term changes of residence due to sudden or gradually worsening changes in environmental factors important to their living, which may be of either a short-term or an irreversible character.

  • @Stuart Leiderman Most of my info is first hand. I lived in Haiti 5 summers. I speak kreyol. I worked in tent camps after the earthquake (at Carfou Aviation). I saw what the first response looked like first-hand (shout out to the Israelis for the best field hospital by far) and am in steady contact with a bunch of people who work in the aid industry, Haitians and expats. And yes, a lot of my info is second-hand and third-hand…that is why I used citations, so people will know where that info is from…even though I’m a bit confused as to exactly what “information” you are referring to.
    Anywho, I don’t think anyone is going to move PaP. Of all the crazy options I’ve heard come out of the multinational NGOs running the construction show that one has alluded me so far. I just don’t know where you would move 3 million people in Haiti to exactly…I mean land rights and ownership is a mess there, so nix to that. And those that have moved outside of PaP are living north of RN 1 and R9 in those terrible at the foothills of the Chain of Mathew mountains near Sous Matla. Water has to be trucked in. There is nothing there.
    At this point I would not call the Haitians “environmental refugees” they are refugees from the international aid process, which stepped in and made a promise to “Rebuild Haiti Better” and failed.

  • Hello and thank you for an excellent website. Mr. Sowa makes a good effort to write something original, but it appears that his bases are second-hand and third-hand information, not personal connections with Haitians or with Haiti-related organizations. This weakens his recommendations, as does the qualifier “perhaps” that precedes his four new regulations on nongovernmental organizations. He also makes the fatal assumption that threats from geological faults are no different than from passing storms, and can be ignored by simply building over the same sites again and again. So it is a good start, but not yet a match for the complexity of the situation. Nonetheless, Haiti specialists welcome Cuban concern and expertise because more than a half-million environmental refugees are still waiting for resettlement to safe and secure locations. Thanks again, Stuart Leiderman leiderman[at]mindspring[dot]com Environmental Refugees and Ecological Restoration

  • @Cimarron, absolutely true and I’m glad yours was the first comment on my post. Early (and later!) Enlightenment thought, with its predisposition to divide our world into smaller and smaller bits, has a heavy hand in establishing distinctions between human beings that made servitude and enslavement morally plausible. Of course the three major monotheistic religions had their own justifications for slavery but with the abandonment of religion the Europeans saw it necessary to invent (literally) new justifications to continue this kidnapping and forced labor under most barbaric conditions. Thank you for adding this very necessary context to the analogy.

  • An excellent expose: honest, passionate, to the point. One very important clarification needs to be made, however. All the major cities in Europe, all the great commercial centers, were built / rebuilt on the back of the slave trade, the evil commerce, the “Enlightenment” notwithstanding! Portugal was the mother of all slave-traders! Lisboa is beautiful – I wouldn’t dispute that the rebuilding was a successful state undertaking. Just that it must be seen in the proper context with regard to where the financing came from.

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