Aftershocks of International Interventions

Though the post-earthquake landscape on the island of Haiti is perhaps exceptional in the sheer scale of a natural disaster in one country, it can be situated within existing examples of disaster recovery programs implemented in massive disasters like the December 2004 Asian Tsunami. Much like the tsunami, surveying the scene through a universal, human lens (which elicited worldwide sympathy and support) reveals collapsed concrete, desperate patients, and lost children. The immediate lifeline for these individuals and communities has always been (and perhaps more so in the case of Haiti)—the international community. While the role they play in meeting emergency needs should not be underestimated, post-disaster experiences in the tsunami show us that in this disaster we cannot ignore the early warning signs of misguided interventions. Interventions that will likely leave a far deeper imprint on local communities than any natural disaster ever could.

In a recent New York Times article, Nathanial Gronewold finds that "Lessons From 2004 Tsunami Will Guide Redevelopment Efforts in Haiti." Unfortunately Gronewold's rosy account of post-tsunami successes overlooks the lessons we didn't learn, and loses even more credibility in its reliance on the expertise of one of the largest evangelical Christian relief groups. Working in a heavily affected area on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka in the weeks after the tsunami, we came across a group of bewildered orphans imitating chants directed by a team of scientologists in bright yellow (happiness-inspiring?) t-shirts. Reports of John Travolta's heroic transport of scientology ministers into the Port-Au-Prince airport and their food distribution (to patients not allowed food while waiting to undergo surgery) leaves one envisioning the confused faces of the unfortunate Haitian children they are certain to seek out.

Other unhelpful intrusions into vulnerable spaces (such as schools and orphanages) are likely to resurface in affected areas across Haiti. Art therapists in Sri Lanka came armed with crayons, paper, one week's leave—and very little understanding of the social and political context they were working in. Two hours later the war-affected children's images of bombs, bloody limbs, and destroyed homes left the therapists looking overwhelmed and entirely unsure of how to deal with the trauma these pictures revealed. These repeat mistakes, while jarring, are shallow and their impact is likely to fade along with the glare of the twenty-four-hour media coverage.

There are, however, mistakes that have left an indelible mark on communities across South Asia—mistakes we cannot afford to repeat. While it is challenging to logistically navigate the aftermath of any large scale disaster—policies and approaches that emerge out of temporary chaos often permanently define the culture of intervention. The most damaging among these is the tendency of bureaucratic INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organizations) to act independently—without consulting local authorities or, worse, local communities. Government funded agencies are likely to work with remnants of a purposely destabilized Haitian administration, overlooking practices like the government sale of donated medications to local groups—feeding local fears that relief funds will be used to line politicians pockets, not repave roads. Anticipating the critique of the larger INGO's exchange of size for effectiveness, one INGO official claims, "It's really going to take a lot of concerted efforts on the part of NGOs to understand what's happening locally."

It is this fundamentally flawed outside-in approach to implementation that will leave superficial scars (an abandoned village of new "tsunami homes" in Southern India built of a heat absorbent metal that residents found unbearable) and establish harmful precedents for intervention (cluster meetings between INGOs will replace substantive discussions with village officials). It privileges the louder outside voices calling for their vision of a "new Haiti" as heard from the capital city, and muffles the voices of those that desperately need a "new Haiti"—survivors in marginalized communities across the island. These voices can, and have always been, heard by community based organizations that play an integral role in the lives and livelihoods of local families. Engaging these organizations would certainly not take much of a "concerted effort"—and is the only way to ensure that recovery programs are based on an understanding of not only what is happening locally, but has happened historically and will happen politically.

Operation USA partnered with one such group to facilitate the reconstruction a fishing village in Eastern Sri Lanka that had been completely destroyed by the massive waves. Consulting with the members of the village on a weekly basis, home designs were chosen by inhabitants, labor was provided by fishermen, and a vehicle for transport of produce to market was to be shared by local villages to prevent resentment. Despite political roadblocks erected by the central government, the project was nearing a successful completion in 2007 when the residents were again displaced by resumed violence in the ongoing civil war. When they returned, the region, and the partially-destroyed village, was now open to the "post-conflict" funds of larger INGOs. The minimal oversight, co-ordination, and consultation with local communities that had been excused in the post-tsunami chaos were now norms entrenched in the culture of post-conflict programming. One INGO re-built fourteen homes without roofs, another rebuilt twenty of the forty destroyed latrines, and almost none bothered to consult the community-developed blueprint that had been clearly developed only months before. Having been through a traumatic ordeal once, and emerged with some sense of ownership and pride in the process of rebuilding—this community now finds itself victimized and dependent on a foreign acronym for every aspect of their daily lives.

While fundraising efforts by groups like the American Red Cross are currently focused on Haiti, most donors are unaware that these funds may not be used there at all. Two years after the Asian Tsunami INGO's self-reported the percentage of funds spent, with groups like the American Red Cross having spent between 20-40 percent of the total funds raised. After a designated post-disaster time period lapses, these funds may well go to a new office in Manhattan rather than the construction of a hospital in Petit Goave. Most of the well-intentioned funds that do make it onto the island will be programmed with minimal input from local communities and even less reflection on lessons learned from disasters elsewhere. It is an intervention similar to the one described by Mark Danner: "Like the ruined bridges strewn across the countryside—one of the few traces of the Marines and their occupation nearly a century ago—these attentions tend to begin in evangelical zeal and to leave little lasting behind."

In the coming weeks and months, INGOs and donor governments will have to act quickly and efficiently to protect recent quake victims in Haiti from the upcoming rainy season. While the approach of all INGOs is not necessarily flawed (and conversely, the work of all community based organizations not necessarily flawless)—general patterns have emerged from disasters like the Asian Tsunami that should be considered. Recent disasters in Japan and Chile will receive some international attention— but the presence of stronger host governments will minimalize the role and influence of any outside intervention. In Haiti, INGOs may be the only viable option for survival in disaster-affected communities. In this context, when tasked with determining nearly every aspect of another human beings daily life (and possibly their futures)—it is essential that we move beyond simplistic paradigms of "doing good" and reflect upon ways to ensure the common INGO mantra to "do no harm" is a reality.

South Asia and the Caribbean islands share a complex colonial past which tells us that the power of natural disasters to collapse buildings and shatter lives, is insignificant when compared to the power of large scale international interventions to erase histories, permanently alter political dynamics, and establish racial hierarchies. (Some scholars link Sri Lanka's recent ability to adopt a brutal military campaign against insurgents to the massive influx of post-tsunami aid in 2005). Though the devastation of a post-disaster environment is most obvious at first glance, we must remain cautious of the inherent danger that comes with viewing communities, and entire nations, through the sympathetic lens most often promoted by large INGOs. It is a perspective that too easily lends itself to accusations of neocolonialism, and one that guarantees the voices of Haitians will remain buried long after the rubble has been cleared away.

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