Hey UN, Haiti’s Earthquake Wasn’t the Disaster

A take on natural disasters and healthcare development in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

A tranquil gathering of Care Bears is far from the image of UN peacekeepers who first arrived in Haiti in September 1993 with guns in hand, ready to restore democracy only to the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere, and the first where slaves won nationhood by virtue of their own resistance. On behalf of The United Nations Mission in Haiti (UNMIH), the peacekeepers resolved to modernize the Haitian army and stabilize the government.

While the peacekeepers’ military interventions in urban slums demobilized a few armed groups (read: killed 7 gang members after use of 22,700 bullets, 78 grenades and five mortars, while unintentionally killing 25 innocent citizens) and supposedly increased security, the social and financial inequalities that provoked violence in the first place remained untouched. 

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Pictured: Departing peacekeeping troops in Haiti.

Then, “disaster” struck. 

220,000 dead, 2.3 million displaced, half a city destroyed. From Haiti’s 2010 magnitude-7.0 earthquake emerged a golden opportunity to exacerbate a historical power dynamic between wealthy nations and the “underdeveloped” Haiti through subjugating humanitarian impulse. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon categorized the catastrophe as a “major humanitarian emergency”, necessitating a “major relief effort”. Haiti was now an international disaster — an international natural disaster — despite the similar geophysical happenings around the world like the magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile a month later which resulted in fewer than 800 total lives lost, a number that pales in comparison to Haiti’s death count. 

Thus, perhaps, a denaturalization is needed. Perhaps this difference, the magnitude-2.0 higher earthquake that resulted in only 0.3% of Haiti’s mortality, is more reflective of global economic disparities than geophysical factors. Perhaps it’s now the time we reflect as asset-rich members of the UN and analyze our years of inconsistent aid to, complicity in exploitation of, and insistence on conversion to true “democracy” in Haiti, and how this may have cultivated root conditions of poverty that caused a “disaster” in Haiti vs. “earthquake” in Chile.

Okay so, the key determinants of Haiti’s massive level of degradation may have more in common with our action and inaction than internally induced destruction. Recovery is possible with relief right? 

Hours after the earthquake, the Security Council added 3,500 troops to continue stabilization, the World Bank  donated $100 million for reconstruction, the World Food Program sent 200 response team members… and more occurred under the UN. Between hundreds of patronizing benefit concerts and thousands of mostly unvetted responders sent from every nation you can probably think of, the (pledged) total $13 billion in relief has little to show for years later, with 95% of those displaced still living without sanitation, electricity or running water in hillside slums of Canaan-Jerusalem. Despite the Temporary Status Program that the US offered to 60,000 Haitians to live and work in the states, the Trump administration confirmed their expiration, because earthquake conditions “have been largely ameliorated” according to James W. McCament, acting director of US Immigration Services, and they “all have AIDS”, according to President Trump.  

We didn’t make it better, but we didn’t make it worse right?

The very UN mission that was intended to stabilize the region killed nearly 10,000 Haitians and sickened a million others after peacekeepers (who lacked knowledge about the region they were sent to enter) contaminated primary water supplies with cholera and fecal waste. Unlike the robust relief efforts publicized by the UN, voices were quiet on this one. It took several years before Mr. Ban addressed it, and there was absolutely no penalty for the peacekeepers who instigated this health crisis. The resulting UN bandaid to fight the epidemic, the “New Approach” (because throwing money at problems that were caused by throwing money at problems is a very new approach), was an envisioned $400 million voluntary trust fund. The New York Times confirms this fund ran only $2 million dollars deep, and not a single cholera affected victim was compensated.   

Pictured: A protestor at a demonstration against UN peacekeeping in 2010.

This is awful, but was it really their fault when they were trying to help?

The complete disregard of humanity that comes with bringing cholera to a country with poor health infrastructure on a mission to “help” speaks volumes, but sexual assault is perhaps a more persuasive argument. Priding itself on a zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abusive behaviors, the UN has enabled such atrocities to persist with impunity by sending in military personnel who had not attended mandatory sexual conduct training and failing to penalize perpetrators who were engaging in rape and “transactional sex”. A 17-year-old girl was one of the 229 victims attacked in Port-au-Prince by a UN peacekeeper, who dropped her off at a curbside. She was pregnant, and her son is now 6 years old. 

Audits of other relief efforts have also raised concerns. A $12.9 million effort to create a Creole-based school curriculum for Haiti was a failed attempt because the team lacked any knowledge of French knowledge. 

Then what’s a productive way to work in these regions?

Through my work at Mercy Beyond Borders (MBB), an international nonprofit centered on broadening access to end-to-end education, economic empowerment and women advocacy in Haiti and South Sudan, I’ve discerned the value of locally motivated action in the healthcare space. MBB supports more than 1,000 girls in primary schools, 240 girls in high school and college, 100 women entrepreneurs, and 120 women in adult literacy classes. When asked, a disproportionately large number of the girls expressed their passion to pursue nursing after seeing their own mothers die in childbirth, witnessing friends contracting cholera, and observing how the lack of healthcare infrastructure contributed to the extraordinarily large death toll in the 2010 quake. 

MBB students like Moriku, who completed a nursing education and now works as a resident school nurse for 659 girls where she diagnoses the very diseases brought by UN peacekeepers before they are untreatable, or Rebecca Yar Yak, a leper without toes or fingers in Haiti who attended literacy classes and now composes songs about HIV/AIDS as a means to spread awareness to women in her village, tell the untold story of women who have seen so much, and are way more capable than given credit for.

Partners in Health (PIH) is another great example of sustainable and well-informed humanitarianism. Rather than erecting only new facilities under its trademark, PIH partners with other NGOs and the Haitian Ministry of Health to refurbish and direct traffic to existing clinics and hospitals, and train community health workers. In addition to increasing the number of patient visits at clinic sites by a few million in one year, PIH’s work centers on removing barriers to acquiring healthcare resources. 

The plight of poverty in Haiti is an outcome that cannot be attributed to its own people. Development is a continuous effort, and involvement shouldn’t be reactive to “natural disasters”. As perpetrators of global inequalities, empathy is important at this time. After all, local voices have the most to say about problems that affect them.