Peniel Joseph: The international community, led by the United States, has deployed military and humanitarian aid to Haiti but much more needs to be done
The outpouring of compassion for the plight of Haitians did not produce enduring results, says Joseph
Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his own.
Haiti, which is still in the midst of a slow and painful rebuilding process in the aftermath of 2010’s historic earthquake, has experienced more heartbreak this week with the arrival of Hurricane Matthew. But sadly, for the Haitian people, the initial damage wreaked by environmental disaster has traditionally become a prelude to the disappointment of promises of international aid and relief, especially those sponsored by the U.S.
The Category 4 hurricane touched down on Haiti’s southern shore on Tuesday, leaving hundreds dead in its wake and decimating the country’s already fragile communications infrastructure. The damage to Haiti’s southern peninsula is the latest setback in a series of environmental disasters that have gripped the country recently.
The collapse of bridges and roads have limited first responders’ access to the remnants of town and villages in desperate need of humanitarian aid in areas such as the coastal village of Petit-Goave. To add insult to injury, the region that Matthew hit hardest is the heart of Haiti’s food production and will result in shortages and increased security risks that will impact the entire population.
The international community, led by the United States, has deployed military and humanitarian aid to Haiti but much more needs to be done. Americans have an unusually intimate, if largely misunderstood, relationship with Haiti. The first independent black republic in the Western Hemisphere via the 1804 revolution, Haiti transformed itself from a French-ruled colony of slaves to a black republic of free citizens.
Haitians purchased their freedom at a heavy cost however. Diplomatically shunned by the young American nation and its president, Thomas Jefferson, Haiti accrued onerous and largely immoral debts from France that left the young nation struggling to find its economic footing well into the 20th century.
Internally, Haitians struggled, at times violently, over how to write their constitution, hold free elections, and provide economic opportunity and human rights to ordinary citizens too frequently used as pawns by French-speaking Haitian elites who exploited and degraded the labor, freedoms, and humanity of the island’s working-class peasantry.
During the era of antebellum slavery, abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass looked to Haiti as black people’s best hope that another world was possible.
The American occupation of Haiti, from 1915-1934, helped to shape political development during the 20th century, a period marked by the spectacular growth of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, the rise of the authoritarian Duvalier regime, and the hopeful if ultimately unsuccessful democratic stirrings led by the former priest turned two-time president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Over the past two decades Haiti has become a kind of laboratory experiment for human rights activists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and ex-presidents. At its best, groups like Paul Farmer’s Partners In Health have made great strides in providing Haitian citizens with access to medical care and in the process tapped into the historic levels of resilience, strength, and beauty that characterizes the Haitian people.
The darker side of such humanitarian efforts has resulted in the profound contradiction of Haiti housing the most NGOs per capita in the world while continuing to experience high levels of poverty, disease, sickness, and death.
The Clinton Foundation’s relationship with Haiti offers a prime example of the blurred lines between humanitarian aid and economic profit and exploitation that contour much of Haiti’s relationship to America and the wider Western world. As president, Bill Clinton pursued trade policies that helped cripple Haiti’s domestic rice production, something he’s since apologized for.
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Clinton, widely considered a friend of the Haitian people, played a prominent role in earthquake relief efforts and has, in the wake of this latest tragedy, directed aid efforts through social media. Yet Clinton’s efforts have come under scrutiny by critics for mixed results, especially in light of the lofty promises made against the backdrop of the 2010 earthquake, a tragedy that left tens of thousands dead.
Hurricane Matthew and the destruction of large swaths of Haiti’s southern coast place in sharp relief the unfulfilled hopes of 2010 by the international community to inaugurate a new era in Haitian history. The outpouring of compassion for the plight of Haitians did not produce tangible results in the building of schools, houses, roads, bridges, and hospitals on the scale promised as the world turned its attention to Haiti.
Six years later, a cycle of economic misery and political instability that American policy are deeply implicated in continues. The Haitian people deserve a deep democracy and moral and ethical commitment to rebuilding Haiti from the bottom up, with its architects being ordinary citizens who know the terrain the best.
Former U.S. presidents and NGO leaders should be a part of this effort, but should not lead it. Most importantly, those who proclaim their intention to want to aid the Haitian people must be honest and transparent about conflicts of interest that turn humanitarian aid into a smokescreen for exploitation.
In the midst of confronting this latest crisis, Haiti needs allies in the world community whose sole priority is enriching the lives of ordinary Haitians without conflicting financial and political interests.
The Haitian people, who have continued to hold steadfast to the ancestral dignity bequeathed through revolutionary struggle, deserve nothing less.