By HANNA BAJWA
Haitian citizens awaiting helicopter rescue after the magnitude 7.2 earthquake on August 14, 2021.
Over 2,207 people have been confirmed dead, more than 12,000 injured, and 130,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed. 11 years since Haiti’s last major earthquake, the impact of this 7.2 magnitude earthquake on August 14th has been devastating.
Since Haiti’s last major earthquake, corruption has hollowed out the state, armed gangs have increased their territorial control, and political turmoil has intensified to the point of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July.
After the major devastation from the 2010 earthquake, former US President Bill Clinton oversaw the post-quake recovery period, promising Haiti would “build back better”. Yet the recent earthquake has shown only failed promises. Not only were the buildings as weak as they were 11 years ago, but Haiti’s government has become weaker and more corrupt than the one that dealt with the 2010 earthquake. Armed gangs now control crucial transport routes, including an essential road leading from the capital to the hypocentre (point of origin). Nearly everyone impacted by the earthquake in Haiti is poorer and hungrier than they were more than a decade ago. The response to the 2010 earthquake was marked by talk of big money and big action, with little to show for it in ordinary Haitians’ lives.
Only a small fraction of the billions of dollars raised and donated was put into the hands of Haiti’s poor majority; perhaps the most enduring legacy of the intervention was a devastating cholera epidemic caused by United Nations peacekeepers nine months after the quake. Donors’ primary excuse for their unwillingness to put money in Haitians’ hands was because of corruption, despite lack of evidence. Then in the 2010 Haitian presidential election, due to some meddling from Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, a right-wing populist pop singer named Martelly won the presidency.
The Martelly years ended up being some of the most corrupt in Haiti in a generation. A Haitian anti-corruption watchdog reported in 2017 that much of the $2bn in Venezuela’s Petrocaribe oil loans – money freed up to be spent on infrastructure, public health, etc. – had been embezzled during Martelly’s presidency. By then Martelly had left office, handing power over to his handpicked successor, a largely unknown businessman from Haiti’s rural north called Jovenel Moïse.
Throughout Moïse’s presidency, huge waves of chaos swept across the nation. The first wave of anti-corruption protests were crushed violently by police and allied gangs. Then waves of kidnappings, massacres, and political violence hit the nation. No elections were held since the start of Moïse’s presidency, allowing parliament to disband and Moïse to rule by decree alongside the support of the Trump administration.
On July 7th, 2021 Moïse was assassinated in his home, and just five weeks later the earthquake struck. Prime Minister Henry, eager to show the eviscerated central government still exists, is trying to assert control over international aid, and has promised substantial oversight so as not to repeat the disastrous experiences of 2010.
What lessons can be learned from 2010 and applied to the current situation? Firstly, it is crucial to involve Haitians in designing and managing the delivery of assistance and relief supplies in their own country. While Haiti needs outside help from the international community to respond to the disaster, only Haitians understand the needs of their own communities and the local social networks that can best deliver aid, so it is crucial to listen to Haitians and not just external actors, as seen during the 2010 response. If this approach is used, humanitarian services will be delivered more efficiently and effectively than international agencies working alone.
The second vital lesson is to support the work of local and international scientists in assessing the physical and meteorological risks that Haiti confronts going forward, so they are able to predict and prepare for similar situations in the future. Understanding the risks will enable Haitian scientists and governmental agencies to develop viable plans to rebuild damaged cities and infrastructure in sustainable, resilient ways.
Thirdly, a key component in Haiti’s instability has been the violent drug-trafficking gangs which have contributed to Haiti’s economic and political woes. Collaborative international policies to identify and intercept drug trafficking could contribute to reducing this major hazard. This is not just a Haitian problem, but an international one, so curbing it would help countries worldwide, particularly the USA and other Caribbean nations.
Lastly, a stable government is crucial in rebuilding Haiti and making the nation’s homes, hospitals, and schools more resilient in case of another disaster. Yet this is something that no other nation but Haiti can control, and therefore their future lies in the hands of those in power returning to a stable, democratic state.
Image: Flickr (Coast Guard News)