The issue: ‘In the meantime back in Haiti…’

Text: Gert van der Ende / Photography: Ronald van den Heerik

More than two months after the earthquake in Haiti, aid organisations are still fully engaged in helping victims of this disaster. With the coming of the rainy season, accommodating the countless homeless has priority. A great deal of money and energy was invested in Haiti shortly after the disaster, but where do we go from here? We asked Dr Jeff Handmaker, instructor at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in the Hague, this question. at EUR.

Haitians do not appear to have been born under a lucky sign. “The disaster in Haiti really does not just come out of the blue. Following its historical independence from slavery in 1804, Haiti has gone through a very violent history: politically, socially and economically. During the sixties the country was ruled by the dictatorial regimes of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier (also referred to as Papa Doc and Baby Doc, ed.) who were supported by the United States and France. They returned the country virtually back to a mediaeval state. At the beginning of the nineties Aristide came to power. Originally popular, he was sent packing by the military. Whereupon the United States undertook an economic boycott and military action to help him back into the saddle. That too was a disaster for Haiti. It is really impossible for us to begin to understand what the people in that country have had to endure.”

Fortunately, money immediately came pouring in from around the world. “The thirty so-called OECD countries maintain a special reserve for disasters. These countries - which include the Netherlands - are members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Money is therefore available when a disaster hits countries such as Haiti or Bangladesh. And of course there is also a separate reserve should the Netherlands be hit by disaster. But there is never enough for developing countries; more is always needed. This is why something like a special bank account for the population at large to make contributions (“Giro 555” in the Netherlands) is of the utmost importance.

And this money is now being used to provide first aid to allvictims? “That is the question. A symposium was recently organised by MIT in the US that included experts on Haiti, such as Erica James and Michel de Graaf. The people receiving assistance generally constitute only a very small group. In providing assistance, you must take the unintended effect of what James calls creating unintended classes of victims among the haves and have-nots into account. In emergency situations, women and orphans are the most vulnerable. These are therefore often given the most emergency assistance, while the earthquake affected almost everyone. Furthermore, there is no room for work on remedying structural problems to commence.

The country was already a mess before the earthquake. Then it was given emergency assistance, which addresses the acute needs, but after that the same mess returns; in short, everything is back to normal.
“That’s right, while the situation in fact is totally abnormal. There is almost no reconstruction. The same huge big difference between the haves and have-nots still persists. For example, according to De Graaf, only 5% to 10% of the Haitian population speaks the official French language, while 90% speaks Creole. This fact alone means that it is very complex to solve structural problems and to rebuild and develop the country.”

Is it not possible for a disaster to rather have a positive impact over the long term? Now that the earthquake has put Haiti in the limelight, would this not result in a greater focus on structural problems and would the international community not finally really try to rebuild the country? “That is not entirely unthinkable, but I nevertheless think that the effect for Haiti is very temporary. This is to a large extent also related to opportunism.”

Opportunism on whose part? “Political opportunism on the part of the countries providing the emergency assistance, for one thing. I will give you an example: there was a prominent emergency assistance action in Haiti on the part of Israeli military personnel, the so-called IDF. In no time a state -of-the-art field hospital rose up out of Haiti's countryside. It was given a lot of attention and sympathy by the media. President Benjamin Netanyahu consequently congratulated the ‘rescuers’ on the fact that they had considerably enhanced Israel’s international image. And then all of a sudden, within two weeks they were gone again. Thus, while Israel itself has created a disastrous situation in the occupied Palestine territories – people in Gaza are dying as a result of Israeli policy and the blockades effected by the army – that same army saves lives in Haiti. This is pure political opportunism of the most cynical kind. But the United States too is not devoid of opportunism related to providing emergency assistance. Thousands of Haitians every year try to enter the US in small homemade boats, where the coastguard stands ready to intercept them and send them back. Prior to the earthquake, the immigration detention centres were filled with people from Haiti and the expectation is that the number of migrants to the US will increase, certainly if the situation is not quickly stabilised. On the other hand, there is the economic opportunism on the part of aid organisations that operate separately from the development organisations. I say this very judiciously, because I have a great deal of respect for organisations such as Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross. But there is economic opportunism, because tremendous amounts of money are involved that becomes available after a disaster through actions such as special public contribution bank accounts and money from the UN that is exclusively destined for emergency assistance. There is always a lot less money available for long term development assistance. Organisations such as ICCO and Oxfam Novib have to fight for money every two years. In case of a disaster it is simply easier to get money. This means that government – perhaps inadvertently – invests more energy in a disaster than in the average development situation.”

That does not sound very nice. There must be situations in which aid is provided with honourable intent? “The argument that has been put forward for a long time now is that the most important means for preventing starvation and other crises – and the major migrations caused by such situations – is structural development assistance. To give people a sense that they have a future in their own country. That idea has never been adopted by the US nor by a lot of other western countries. You would hope that the US would now be at the point where they would begin to focus more on the post-disaster development of Haiti. Because they can now see how dependent Haiti is on them. However, I fear the worst.”

In short, the survivors are patched up, after which they are in need of development assistance, but that is only provided in dribs and drabs, so that after the disaster they can go back to living a poor and hopeless existence? “That's right.”

Does this also apply, for example, to the regions that in 2004 were hit by the tsunami or for the regions of India that were hit by a severe earthquake in 2001? “I happened to come across someone who recently came back from Bangladesh, from one of the regions that was most heavily hit by the tsunami. The economy and unemployment is in worse condition than it was before the tsunami. People try to go on with their lives and they help each other, however, unfortunately the world quickly forgot about them after the tsunami. The awareness that gives people the sense that they should do something, generally only lasts for a very short time. There are exceptions. For example, my colleague Robert Sparrow told me that the societal solidarity after the tsunami in Asia was a catalyst for the recent successes scored during the peace process on Sumatra.”

But the chances of structural development in Haiti are minimal? “I am afraid so. This is also primarily related to the fact that development assistance is highly vulnerable. The attention of the Dutch population – which often nevertheless gives a lot of money in disaster situations – is rapidly dwindling. This is because it is much easier to create solidarity in crisis situations, while it is far more complex and difficult as a Dutch citizen to determine the proper posture in relation to the majority of the world which lives in poverty. But it is important for that discussion to take place, whereby organisations such as Hivos, ICCO, Cordaid and Oxfam Novib must play a key role, and they are trying to do exactly that."

Doesn't everyone know that structural aid is the best remedy for helping a country and for reducing the impact of a disaster? “I don’t think so. In the case of emergency assistance everything is clear: you send over your doctors and rescue teams and you're done. But in the case of development assistance, the issue centres on solidarity over the longer term. An important report was, however, recently published by the Netherlands Council on Government Policy about ‘Less Pretention, Greater Ambition’ in relation to development assistance. This report devotes more attention to a structural approach to development on a broader front. The Dutch government must, however, still pick up on this. Claire Short, ex-minister of Development Cooperation in Great Britain puts it succinctly: 'We have the technology needed to eradicate poverty throughout the world, but we do not have the political will’. That will must be built up bottom up, with due consideration to the structural factors that obstruct sustainable development. As far as this is concerned, there is much greater awareness in Scandinavia; the Netherlands is acting like an ostrich. We refuse to see how intricately we are linked to poor countries in terms of trade, raw materials, climate, migration issues, etc. We are furthermore unable to imagine how someone in a developing country lives. And to make matters worse, someone like Wilders wants to further reduce development assistance. How simplistic and how cynical."

Friday, March 26th 2010 (week 12).


The issue is a section in Erasmus Magazine, the opinion and information magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in which an EUR-academic responds to a current-social issue.


Dr Jeff Handmaker (1970 in Oxford, UK) is a lecturer in Law, Human Rights and Development at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS), part of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in the Hague. In addition, he is an honorary research fellow at the law faculty of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. Following his youth, mostly spent in Corrales, New Mexico (USA), he studied law in Britain. Starting from the mid-nineties, he worked in South Africa for the organisation Lawyers for Human Rights. Dr Handmaker ultimately ended up in the Netherlands, first as a consultant to various human rights projects and later as lecturer. He obtained his doctorate from the Human Rights Study and Information Centre in Utrecht.