Hundreds of people are now known to have died when Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti with 145 mile-per-hour winds on October 1. The poorest country in Matthew’s path, Haiti was also the hardest hit. Poor coastal communities have been devastated; villagers have lost their crops, their animals and their homes. A combination of poverty, hazardous and insecure housing and weak governance left Haitians vulnerable to the elements.
Worse still, this comes six years after the devastating earthquake of 2010, which killed around 230,000 people. The earthquake’s epicentre was close to the densely populated capital, Port-au-Prince, which already suffered from poor building regulations and widespread poverty. Millions of homes were destroyed, and as recently as April 2016, 62,590 people were reportedly still living in temporary camps.
The poor response to the 2010 disaster means the damage wrought by Matthew will be all the harder to repair. Haiti and the outside organisations helping it have sorely failed to “build back better” since the earthquake – and while some of the reasons are logistical, others come down to serious failings on the part of outside “helpers”.
There has been plenty of consternation about the way funds meant to help the country have been spent. Housing remains a particular problem; in 2015, a report claimed that the American Red Cross had only managed to convert donations of half a billion dollars into six permanent housing units.
The Red Cross has attempted to set the record straight on the scale and effectiveness of its interventions, but the organisation’s reputation in Haiti has struggled since.
It’s clear that problems with land tenure, red tape, administrative costs, language barriers, utilities and governmental and contractual transparency all but thwarted NGO efforts to improve the situation. And discouragingly, these problems are not unique to the Haitian disaster. Similar issues have plagued the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines ever since it was hit by Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013.
Getting it right
Many survivors there are still living in temporary housing or in perilous conditions in shanty coastal communities. Those that have moved to permanent housing have little or no access to drinkable water, and there are few opportunities to secure a livelihood. As with the Haitan earthquake, millions of dollars in international aid were pledged in the aftermath of Yolanda, although official figures show that the amount received was somewhat less than originally announced.
In the immediate aftermath of both Yolanda and the Haitian earthquake, aid agencies faced the twin problems of getting relief goods to those in critical need and ensuring that these goods were distributed fairly. As I and my fellow researchers found during our project Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda, communities spontaneously supported each other in the aftermath of Yolanda, but as soon as relief goods arrived, tensions developed over the equity of distribution. Who gets what in the aftermath of a disaster is a perennial problem.
The problem for relief workers in Haiti now will be to co-ordinate the immediate distribution of relief goods. But claims to be building back better either socially or materially are not credible until the poorest of the poor have safe housing and a reasonable standard of living.
The problem for both Haiti and the Philippines is that even before the 2010 earthquake and Typhoon Yolanda, people were living in entrenched poverty. The economies of both disaster-ravaged areas were largely dependent on agriculture. For both industrial manufacturing is limited and infrastructure is underdeveloped. It is unrealistic to expect disaster relief to solve socio-economic problems that were decades, if not centuries, in the making.
Ineptitude and incompetence
On another note, the response to Hurricane Matthew may yet have another set of unexpected consequences. If it goes seriously wrong, it could be a serious political liability for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, as it’s now called, was at the forefront of “building back better” for Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Millions of dollars were channelled through the foundation, and Hillary Clinton is on record as describing the Haitian relief efforts as a “road test” that would act as a model for relief and development efforts.
But NGOs’ response to Haiti’s crises have come in for plenty of criticism. Some critics have derided so-called “disaster capitalism” – the phenomenon by which huge quantities of money funnelled into post-disaster reconstruction somehow never manage to improve the lives of the people their funders are meant to help.
Chelsea Clinton, meanwhile, wrote her parents a now-notorious account of the ineptitude and negligence that marked the international response to the earthquake. Referring to the chaotic and uncoordinated UN and NGO efforts she saw on a fact-finding visit to Haiti, she wrote: “To say I was profoundly disturbed by what I saw – and didn’t see – would be an understatement. The incompetence is mind numbing.”
The long haul
In the aftermath of this latest disaster, Oxfam, the Red Cross and The Clinton Foundation have already launched emergency appeals for donations for Matthew’s victims. But unless international aid focuses on those that need it most and sets a higher bar for success than bare subsistence, the residents of Haiti’s vulnerable coastal communities will remain permanently exposed to the ravages of “natural” disasters.
Aid agencies should also stay attached to poor communities for the long haul. If they don’t, rehabilitation projects become “orphaned” and vulnerable communities slip back into destitution. This is obviously a significant challenge to aid agencies and the resources they have at their disposal, and there’s always another headline-making disaster that needs immediate money and attention.
Above all, we need to remember that earthquakes and hurricanes may be natural, but the scale of their impact is man-made. To genuinely build back better, the international community needs to take a much harder look at why the rich stay rich and the poor get poorer. That would demand a fundamental reallocation of wealth and power.
Until that happens, poor people and nations will be forever vulnerable and the rich will always be appeasing their conscience with international aid. At the very least, we can but hope that Matthew will prompt a reassessment of what building back better actually means.