Uncertain Ground

On January 12, a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, just outside the capital of Port-au-Prince. The damage is beyond human comprehension. Since then, groups have lurched to deliver emergency aid while the survivors have done an amazing job sharing what they have. As of today (February 8), the situation is still fragile: Haitian people are still traumatized, survivors’ own food and water are running out, and despite the critical need for aid coordination there is no evidence of that happening.

An earthquake of this magnitude and this close to a big city is bound to cause major damage, like recent quakes in Iran and Turkey. Complicating the forces of nature, rendering the tremors more deadly, is Haiti’s vulnerability to disasters. This vulnerability results from a series of human acts and decisions, not some random chance or act of God. The sheer magnitude of the death toll – best recent estimates say 200,000 dead and 1,000,000 homeless – results from how the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area grew up. In the 1980s, before the World Bank, USAID and other donors imposed “Structural Adjustment Programs” as part of the “Washington Consensus,” Port-au-Prince housed 500,000 people. This neoliberal approach resulted in a fast, chaotic growth. Shantytowns appeared to accommodate these quintupling of two million people who were pushed off their land and pulled into very low-wage factory jobs.

Responding to this humanitarian crisis, dozens of NGOs and mission groups sent urgent appeals for funds for emergency aid. Rehabilitating the deteriorating state-run General Hospital, Partners in Health teamed up with the Haitian government and even the U.S. military to provide desperately needed emergency medical aid. The U.S. military seized control of the airport, already under U.N. occupation, and then coordinated aid flights. Commercial flights stopped, and many operating under the U.S. military control were rerouted for lack of fuel. Occupying U.N. forces closed the border with the Dominican Republic. The earthquake destroyed the capital’s port, where most of Haiti’s food, fuel, and manufactured goods arrive, also because of the “death plan” – neoliberalism’s impact on destroying Haiti’s self-sufficiency. In short, no aid could get into Haiti.

While aid was being blocked, Haitian people – survivors, not victims – took very good care of themselves. Already a proud, generous, and resourceful people, Haitians got over their very intense divisions in order to survive. I was in Haiti for the 2004 coup and can attest to the very real divisions over Aristide, but the biggest divisions and most dire concerns for Haiti’s poor majority have been economic. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas – with 4 out of 5 people making 2 dollars per day or less – but it is also home to the most millionaires per capita. It is not a coincidence. For the moment at least, in my neighborhood at least, both political and economic divisions have become the ancien régime. In the new Haiti, middle class and pèp la (Haiti’s poor majority) are all sleeping on the ground, looking out for one another and sharing what resources they have. By themselves, people in my neighborhood set up a medical clinic and an information gathering apparatus. I have more hope than ever that Haitian people will survive this crisis because I have seen what Haitian people are accomplishing on their own, together.

But the survivors’ resources are indeed limited. Particularly urgent are food and water. This is where foreign aid in whatever form is urgently needed at the moment, in addition to medical needs. Partners in Health and French NGO Doctors without Borders are doing great work delivering this critical need. I went to my neighborhood in Haiti to and with Hospice St. Joseph as part of a grassroots medical team that was coordinating with Partners in Health. This team delivered aid to 1,000 people in a week. Many grassroots efforts to give aid to Haiti are underway, but the scale is still too great for the grassroots at the moment. The U.S. military is the most efficient and effective agency to deliver aid to Port-au-Prince at the moment, but especially since Haiti has been occupied following the coup in which the Bush government played an important role, survivors have no reason to trust them. I am told that big U.S. NGOs who used to deliver food aid to the countryside are poised to do the same in Port-au-Prince. The old plan – P.L. 480 – not only didn’t work, it actually hurt the peasant economy. So this “cutting-the-cake” plan has to learn the lessons of the past and not repeat the mistakes of hoarding, corruption, high overhead, and creating “big men.” And they have to be in direct contact with the grassroots, who are organizing. NGOs’ role should be one of support, not direction, decisions need to be made out in the open, and the NGOs’ points of contact must be fluent in Haitian Creole and have at least some understanding of Haiti. At bare minimum the Haitian survivors need the respect that they deserve, as a people who have survived despite very many obstacles, including those imposed by foreigners.

The urgent challenge that we must face is how to help survivors articulate their needs and to connect them with outside resources. Coordination will be literally the difference between life and death. Specifically, donors have a choice between violence in the form of understandable riots and — military repression or a rocky and imperfect transition into medium-term plans of self-sufficiency (which must include rebuilding Haiti’s peasant economy destroyed by neoliberalism) and long-term plans of rebuilding Port-au-Prince. If anyone harbors plans to profit – call it disaster capitalism – please stop, if nothing else out of respect for the survivors and the thousands of dead whose bodies are still rotting underneath the rubble.

I don’t and can’t know how long Haitian survivors’ communal food supplies will last, but time is of the essence.

For now, nou la. We’re here.

The motto on Haiti’s flag offers the best advice of all: L’Union Fait la Force. In unity there is strength. The survivors have already learned this lesson. It’s our turn now.

MARK SCHULLER is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at York College, the City University of New York. He co-edited Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction and co-directed documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. He is completing a book about foreign aid and NGOs in Haiti.


1 Known as Reaganomics in the U.S., neoliberalism is the belief that the state should step aside and let the free market take care of everything.

2 For a fuller discussion, see http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/01/15-11

3 See http://www.worldpress.org/Americas/3131.cfm and http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080602/lindsay

4 See Richardson (1997) Feeding Dependency, Starving Democracy for a detailed account.

5 For example, Food for the Poor was censured for mismanagement in 2006.

6 See Naomi Klein (2007) The Shock Doctrine and Nandini Gunewardena and MARK SCHULLER (2008) Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction

Mark Schuller is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Nonprofit and NGO Studies at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. He is the author or co-editor of seven books, including Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti. Schuller is co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy (2009), and active in several solidarity efforts.