Earthquake in Haiti: Reflections in the Aftermath

I will return to a consideration of diplomacy’s prospects in the 21st century in a future posting.

In the meantime, it seems to me that the disaster in Haiti, and the response of the international community, merit some sustained reflection.

In Haiti, do the ethos of guerrilla diplomacy and the imperative of providing emergency medical and humanitarian assistance to those in need intersect?

I think so. But to see how, and as with the role of diplomacy in international relations writ large, it is time both to look back, and to look ahead.

Thirty years ago on a backpacking trip I had the opportunity to travel on both sides of the border which divides the second largest island in the Caribbean, Hispaniola, between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I have been fascinated by the place ever since. There is much to be learned in studying this locale, very little of which is coming out in the frenzy of sensational and heart-rending coverage which has attended the arrival of the legions of mainstream media, a group otherwise conspicuous mainly by their absence.

On the other hand, given the frequency and intensity of natural calamities which have beset Haiti in recent years,  many of those involved in the disaster relief industry must be developing quite a familiarity with the country. Some aspects of it, anyway.

The better hotels and restaurants, for instance…

In the wake of witnessing the machinery of  celebrity in full mobilization in delivering the Hope for Haiti Now telethon – admirable despite the glitz and sometimes forced images – it’s easy to be hard.

And there is certainly plenty of blame to go around.

But the story is more than just complex. It’s tragic, and that makes lapsing into cynicism and despair all too tempting. Yet from knowledge can come the understanding leads to change.

Stepping back a bit, what might be said of the island’s history?

Christopher Columbus founded the first European settlements in the New World on Hispaniola in 1492 and 1493.

It was not, however, considered the new world by the the estimated 400,000 native Amerindian Arawaks (Taino) who were living there before the period of European colonization and the importation of slaves from Africa to work the plantation economies.

The Taino initially welcomed the visitors.  Yet a combination of harsh treatment by the Europeans and exposure to imported diseases to which they had no immunity, such as smallpox, resulted in the near extinction of the island’s original inhabitants.

When the western third of Hispaniola was ceded by Spain to France in 1697 as part of the settlement of the Nine Years War, the French colony quickly came to eclipse its Spanish neighbour in power and wealth, and became known as the “Pearl of the Antilles“. For a time, it was the richest and most prosperous colony in the Caribbean.

Following a successful struggle for independence which concluded in 1804, Haiti became only the second country in the Americas to achieve that status after the United States.  In response, a trade embargo was imposed on Haiti by France, the former colonial master (which for a variety of reasons has never left anywhere that it has not been thrown out of), the USA, where slavery was still legal, and Great Britain, which did not wish to see its Caribbean colonies follow the Haitian example.

This animosity proved costly. In the intervening years, the fortunes of Haiti and the Dominican Republic have been reversed, with the former now the poorest country in the hemisphere, and the latter becoming the largest economy in the region.

Nowhere is this dichotomy move vividly illustrated than in satellite telemetry, which in places shows  relatively lush, green terrain on the Dominican side of the border, and a deforested, over-cultivated, and exhausted land on the other.

Haiti was occupied by the US marines from 1915 – 1934, due mainly to its indebtedness to American banks and concerns over the influence of expatriate Germans. It has experienced many foreign interventions since and has become, in effect, a ward of the international community.

Today it might be best be described not only as a failed state, but, in every sense, as a collapsed one.

That is one set of observations which play into the complex emergency now unfolding on the ground.

But there are many.

For example, it is crucial to distinguish between humanitarian relief, which is immediate and short term; aid, which tends to be technical and project oriented, and; development, which, at its best, is long-term, human-centred, equitable and sustainable. Development is the flip side of security. It is a process, not an end state, and is characterized by a situation in which people have access to social, political and economic opportunities to reach their full potential.

Haiti has much experience with disaster relief, and has received substantial amounts of aid, but has achieved very little over the 200 years since independence in terms of development.

In reference ACTE model of world order set out in Guerrilla Diplomacy, with the exception of a tiny elite and almost non-existent middle class, most Haitians inhabit the T and E worlds.

And it must be asked, in this crisis of colossal proportions, why is it that foreign military forces, especially those of the US, are leading the international response? If the answer is that it is an issue of capacity and resources, then a larger question is begged.

Why is it that the capacity and resources required to respond to complex emergencies are lodged in defence departments, and not in specialized civilian agencies?

Is this the most efficient, effective model for the delivery of emergency humanitarian assistance?  I have real doubts. As institutions, and at the most basic level of analysis, militaries exist to kill or capture enemies. As instruments of international policy they are designed to compel your adversary to submit to your will through the threat, or use of armed force. Sure, they can do other things, but those things – reconstruction, humanitarian assistance, cross-cultural and strategic communications – are not what they were intended for.

So, then. Where are the purpose-built institutions, and why are they not resourced to lead?

Another issue is intelligence. Intimate knowledge of the way things work, and how to get things done in Haiti would greatly expedite relief efforts. How much of that kind of essential, granular intelligence was being generated by the local embassies of the countries now most involved in the relief efforts?  Like the tourists alighting on a heavily guarded beach from the cruise ship Independence of the Seas a few days after the earthquake, were the Port au Prince based diplomatic representatives of Western countries living in a bubble, talking mainly to others of their ilk about what might be going on out there?

Or were they getting out of the compound and finding out for themselves, seeping down like penetrating oil into the interstices of power and influence by navigating pathways inaccessible to others?

Senior officials in sending states and managers in foreign ministries should be asking, and demanding answers to these hard questions.

Finally, there is the matter of the Haitian diaspora communities abroad. Members of this group will know more about what is going on Haiti than a handful of diplomats working out of an embassy in Port au Prince ever can or will.  In Canada, almost 100,000 persons of Haitian origin live in Quebec, mainly in Montreal. Haiti is also the second largest recipient, after Afghanistan, of Canadian development assistance.

Canadian interests are engaged.

With the Haitian diaspora’s dense network of ties back to the old country, it is long past time that foreign service officers were posted to Montreal with the explicit task of openly and transparently getting to know everything about, and all of the key people in that community.

There are huge challenges to be broached in Haiti at the best of times. The situation at present is dire and requires immediate and compassionate redress.

But there is much more to be learned from contemplating the roots of Haiti’s distress than will ever be gleaned from newspaper headlines or the fleeting images crossing television and computer screens.

There is also great potential for improving performance, an imperative which should be front and centre at the donors meeting being convened in Montreal January 25th.

We will delve more deeply into these issues in future posts.