The political crisis that Haiti is currently facing once again shows that there are no quick fixes to help improve the living conditions of millions of Haitians. “Building Back Better” is not just a matter of cosmetic changes, but has to imply fundamental changes aimed at the root causes of Haiti’s vulnerability.
“La Catastrophe n’était pas naturelle”. « The Catastrophe wasn’t natural ». This is what Haitian economist Myrtha Gilbert stated in an article published in November 2008 on the Alterpresse news site. That year Haiti had been severely hit by hurricanes and tropical storms. Hundreds of Haitians lost their lives, cattle were dragged away by the water and the material damage to houses, roads and the harvest was enormous. Only four years earlier hurricane Jeanne caused the flooding of the coastal city of Gonaives – the driest city in the country –after heavy rainfall in the mountains. Houses were swallowed by the water, 3.000 people died, 2.600 people were injured and more than 300.000 people were left displaced. Deforestation and erosion were the catastrophes that gave the natural event of a hurricane its devastating killing power. Human interventions in nature increased the impact of this natural phenomenon. Gilbert wrote: “The denudation of the Haitian soil has been made possible by disastrous decisions.” Disastrous decisions being made by the Haitian government, very often supported by and in the interest of international companies and institutions and national elite groups. Because of these decisions Haiti has become increasingly vulnerable to natural risks.
In his latest book Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti (2016) anthropologist Mark Schuller is telling basically the same story about the 12 January 2010 earthquake. How did Haiti become so vulnerable? To answer this question, he refers to the Pressure and Release (PAR) Disaster model. The PAR model understands a disaster as the interplay between social and economic factors and the actual natural hazard with its own characteristics (e.g. kind of hazard, intensity, proximity to densely populated areas). On the social side the model distinguishes three aspects: root causes, dynamic pressures and unsafe conditions. These three aspects determine the vulnerability of a society. Root causes have to do with political and economic systems and structures which determine how power and wealth are distributed within a society. In his book At Risk (2003) geographer Wisner explains root causes as follows: “Root causes are connected with the functioning (or malfunctioning) of the state, and ultimately the nature of the control exercised by the police and military, and with good governance, the rule of law and the capacities of the administration.” (p. 52). Schuller mentions three root causes of Haiti’s vulnerability: the heritage of the colonial system (slavery and economic exploitation), the continuing influence of foreign powers in Haiti’s domestic affairs starting immediately after its independence; and a state that functions against the nation and that is geared towards serving its own interests and that of specific elite groups. He then connects these three root causes to dynamic pressures. Schuller: “The legacy of this foreign powers-state-elite “ménage-à-trois” is environmental destruction, land conflicts, social exclusion, extreme inequality, centralisation in Port-au-Prince, and a state that did not invest in social development, all of which amplified the destructive force of natural hazards such as earthquakes and hurricanes both of which are endemic to the region.” (p. 27)
So dynamic pressures are the consequences of a (malfunctioning) social and economic system. The question is: where to do the root causes lead? Factors that contributed considerably to the high number of casualties were Port-au-Prince’s overpopulation and bad state of urban infrastructure. For both economic reasons and lack of space due to overpopulation people built their houses in unsafe places. Deforestation and the social and economic subordination of the countryside had provoked a massive exodus from the ‘peyi andèyo’ to the city. The migration to the city was further encouraged by government policies to create low wage jobs in the assembly industry and to use agricultural land, previously used for domestic food production, for the export oriented production of, for instance, tropical fruit. Food imports (specifically rice) from the United States led to the decline of national food production and the loss of jobs. So, many people poured into the city where job opportunities were limited, urban infrastructure was lacking and basic facilities, like electricity, potable water, health care and education were scarce. All these dynamic pressures created a fertile soil for unsafe conditions.
Unsafe conditions are the visible, real facts of life that make living unsafe. Very often they turn out to be the primary cause of high casualty rates in the case of natural disasters. For instance, in the case of 12 January 2010, collapsing non earthquake resistant buildings were the number one killer. People had used cheap and low quality building materials; there was a lack of skilled labourers and heavy machinery; building codes were neglected and not enforced; and houses were built in ravines and on steep slopes.
So, building back better is not just a matter of changing the unsafe conditions, although these have to be addressed immediately and generously. Not only because they are the so-called quick wins that affect people’s lives instantly and substantially. But things need to be changed on a deeper level as well. And exactly this is what the current political situation is telling us. The political crisis is an illustration of one of the root causes of Haiti’s vulnerability to natural hazards. Predatory politicians ‘eating and biting’ each other to get their share and only serve their own support groups at the detriment of majority of the population. To reduce Haiti’s vulnerability all three aspects of the PAR theory need to be addressed. No quick fixes. No cosmetic changes. But standing side by side. Facing difficulties together instead of alone, as NGOs very often tend to do. Of which the peasant song Woch la lou pou nou woule-l paske nou tounen koukouj (The work has become too hard for us, because we don’t work together anymore) is a good illustration. Listening better and talking less to the population. Change the unsafe conditions, reduce the dynamic pressure and attack the root causes.
Marcel Catsburg is a senior lecturer in (international) organisational communication. He worked in Haiti from 1991 – 1996 as a communication advisor for a local NGO. He writes about Haiti on his website www.haititinfo.nl