Haiti Watch (II): When the real damage happened

Haiti Watch (II): When the real damage happened

On a morning when Haiti was rocked by a big aftershock, my friend Bob Maguire checks in to make the argument that most of the damage in that poor country happened well before the earth started moving.

By Robert Maguire

Best Defense Haiti correspondent

I am being asked repeatedly to assess the earthquake damage in Haiti. From my perspective, the earthquake has been simply the coup de grace to a city and country damaged for decades — indeed centuries — by human factors. As we and Haitians move forward, I think we must consider  how Haiti had already been damaged. Only then, in the words of Bill Clinton, can Haiti be "built back better."

Haiti has been damaged over time by:

  • Its own misrule; predatory governments, and political and economic elites who have developed and supported an apartheid-like socio-economic system that has left the vast majority excluded, poor and powerless and has concentrated wealth, power and privilege into the hands of a few.
  • Those who peddle the denigration of Haiti and its people, and of its culture, be they delusional tele-evangelists or misinformed, superficial or paternalistic ‘experts’ who cast Haiti and its people as a ‘basketcase,’ a failed state, or a nation that can only survive through some form of international trusteeship — ignoring the talents of Haitians, failing to expand opportunities, making the country increasingly vulnerable to external forces, be they strong storms or global commodity price increases of food and fuel, and pre-determining failure and neglect.

And, most of all, Haiti has been damaged by so-called development policies and programs over the past 40 years, mostly imposed upon Haiti without partnership or collaboration of Haitians from the beginning of the process, that have:

  • Viewed the country simply as a nearby source of cheap labor that can assist ‘investors’ and Haitian business elites make money and as such have concentrated everything in Port-au-Prince, including poor people.
  • Or, in the case of the ‘development set,’ have viewed Haiti as a place or even a laboratory where they can ‘do well by doing good.’ A Brazilian friend has described the greatest success of foreign aid to Haiti as enabling people to pay mortgages in Montgomery County, Maryland. The projects imposed upon Haiti over the past 40 years have not done good, though many involved with them have done well. Rather, these projects, largely unsustained once the grant  money was gone, have neglected Haiti and its people, particularly in the rural areas where more than half of all Haitians still live, and have provoked unmitigated migration off the land toward the cities. We have seen not just in this earthquake, but previously in the floods in Gonaives of 2004 and 2008. The results: the high death tolls of poor people living in unsafe areas such as hillsides, ravines, flood plains, and coastal alluvial flats.

The damage had been done before mother nature and her shifting tectonic plates delivered the final, crushing blow. The results before the quake were grinding poverty, despair, and hopelessness combined with greater concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the greater dysfunction of an entire nation. As we move forward from rescue and relief to rebuilding, let us remember that the real damage to Haiti occurred prior to the natural disaster.