The Historical Roots of Haiti's Unnatural Disaster

Blog by Matt Barr

Today is the third anniversary of the earthquake that struck just outside of Port-au-Prince, the densely populated capital of Haiti.(1) The UN estimated that in the wake of this earthquake more than 220,000 people died and over 300,000 people were injured, fracturing families which directly affected 750,000 children.(2)

According to Roger Bilham, a seismologist who subsequently arrived in Haiti, the disaster that followed the earthquake “was more than twice as lethal as any previous magnitude-7.0 [triggered] event”.(3)

So what was it that made this particular disaster so unprecedented?

That this disaster was so lethal can be put down to the social conditions in which the shocks were felt, namely Haiti's state of impoverishment. Whilst the prevailing narrative directly blames Haiti for the social predicament it is in, and in which this social disaster was so dramatically able to unfold, Haiti itself is not solely responsible for its poverty having been the recipient of numerous external interventions.(4)

This piece across its two parts seeks to outline firstly the common misconception that the natural event is the disaster itself rather than simply being the trigger to the disaster that follows, and secondly to specifically relate this misconception to Haiti in terms of its social context in 2010 and in doing so address some of the external historical roots that helped create Haiti's social calculus of vulnerability.

Part One: An Unnatural Disaster

The scale of devastation following any earthquake is not so much the result of the magnitude of the earthquake itself but rather is determined more by the social environment in which the earthquake occurs and as such, these events are not not considered natural disasters but are rather seen as unnatural disasters triggered by extreme natural events. These natural triggers occur “irrespective and independently of social action and any modification of the environment” and whilst man's impact on such geological processes is insignificant, “human action and inaction can nevertheless impact upon the outcomes of earthquakes”.(5) Simply put, “Earthquakes happen. But the disaster follows because of human action or inaction.”(6)

Thus there is an important distinction to be made between an earthquake itself and the outcomes – the levels of disaster – that follow an earthquake.

Numerous examples exist of earthquakes rating considerably higher on the Richter scale that have resulted in disaster's that caused significantly less death and destruction than those recording lower magnitudes.

The Richter Scale itself is one whereby the difference between adjacent whole numbers represents a tenfold change in measured amplitude.(7) A magnitude 8.0 earthquake is, therefore, ten times that of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake and a 9.0 magnitude event is one hundred times that one of a 7.0 magnitude in measured amplitude. The difference between two chronologically adjacent whole number on the Richter Scale in terms of energy release is roughly about 31 times.(8)

The potential disparity between magnitude and disaster was amply demonstrated only weeks after the Haiti earthquake when Chile was hit with a magnitude 8.8 earthquake but suffered only a tiny proportion of the devastation that followed Haiti's magnitude 7.0 earthquake. Accordingly, the scale of any disaster's impact “has much less to do with, say, an earthquake’s Richter force or a hurricane’s category strength than with the political economy of the country or region that it strikes.”(9)

Neil Smith, the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the City University of New York, states that it “is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster – causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction – the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.”(10)

Social Roots of Disaster

In 1987 the UN General Assembly designated the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) and set up the 1994 World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction in Yokohama, Japan, which highlighted the relationship between disasters and poverty, declaring that, “Those usually most affected by natural and other disasters are the poor and socially disadvantaged groups in developing countries as they are least equipped to cope with them.”(11)

A detailed analysis, of which the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been prominently involved, has revealed the link between lower scores on the Human Development Index (HDI) and higher death tolls following extreme natural events and that the converse is also true, that the higher a nation's HDI score the lower the vulnerability to lethal disasters following natural triggers. Such data sets reveal that a country's human development and levels of poverty are major indicators of the increased likelihood of suffering a disproportionately large and lethal disaster in the wake of an extreme natural event.(12)

This concept of the unnatural aspect of 'natural' disasters is also widely acknowledged and accepted in other fields. For instance, a 2010 report entitled Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention, jointly published by the World Bank and the UN acknowledges the role of such a social calculus. The report details, primarily through an economic lens, the human and planning impact on natural hazards in contributing to and exacerbating death tolls and levels of destruction.(13) The report opens with the following sentence, which jointly speaks to both its contents and its conclusions:

“The adjective “UnNatural” in the title of this report conveys its key message: earthquakes droughts, floods, and storms are natural hazards, but the unnatural disasters are deaths and damages that result from human acts of omission and commission.”(14)

The then Secretary-General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Didier Cherpitel, also stressed in the introduction to the 2001 World Disasters Report that, “In many cases, nature’s contribution to ‘natural’ disasters is simply to expose the effects of deeper, structural causes - from global warming and unplanned urbanization to trade liberalization and political marginalization. The effects of man’s action are often evident - many natural catastrophes are un/natural in their origins.”(15)

Poverty and Disaster

Those usually most affected by natural and other disasters are the poor and socially disadvantaged groups in developing countries as they are least equipped to cope with them.(16) In July 1999, as the UN International Decade was coming to an end, the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction Programme Forum in Geneva was held, by which point, Wisner et al report, “the social agenda of vulnerability reduction had significantly expanded” and the Forum helped establish the link between poverty reduction and disaster mitigation.(17)

The World Bank itself had also previously published documents which acknowledge the link between poverty and “extreme vulnerability” to, amongst other things, natural hazards.(18) The second part of Chapter 9 of the World Bank's 2001 World Development Report, for example, is entitled “reducing vulnerability to natural disasters” and notes that it was developing countries that bore the brunt of the events triggered by natural hazards during the period between 1990-1998.(19)

In the 2001 International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies report mentioned above data from UNDP and the Centre for Research in the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) was presented which compared the impacts of extreme natural events on countries with high, medium and low scores on the Human Development Index (HDI). From the 2,557 disasters triggered by natural events that took place between 1991 and 1998, half occurred in medium HDI countries whereas two-thirds of deaths occurred in countries with low HDI scores. Only two percent of deaths were recorded in countries with high HDI scores.(20)

In a separate analysis, UNDP commissioned a quantitative study in 2002 of more than 200 possible indicators of disaster risk vulnerability, resulting in the production of a vulnerability index to be used in its World Vulnerability Report. For the period between 1980 and 1999 the worldwide results demonstrate that the Human Development Index is, in the words of Wisner et al, “the best predictor of deaths triggered by extreme natural events.”(21)

Returning to the discrepancies between earthquake magnitude and death toll, but linking it to a conception of social calculus, social vulnerability and unnaturalness, Stephen Jackson notes the difference between the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that struck California with a force equal to 7.1 on the Richter scale which resulted in more than 60 lives lost and a February 1997 earthquake that struck north-western Iran “tearing apart rural areas and claiming 1000 lives”; Jackson outlines that the later “earthquake was roughly one-fortieth Loma Prieta’s strength - but it killed more than 16 times as many people. Three months later, an even stronger tremor, exactly equal in force to the California quake, again struck Iran - this time in the east, killing a further 1,000 people.” Jackson concludes by commenting that, “There’s much that is unnatural in how natural disasters claim lives.”(22)

Neoliberalism, Debt and Vulnerability

Writing about the critiques of globalisation and neoliberal policies such as structural adjustments, Wisner et al have commented that during the 1980s “there was evidence cutbacks in public expenditure on health and social protection were undermining the resilience of poor people to natural hazards.”(23) These authors also argued that “the programmes for managing international debt imposed on many of these [poor] countries by the World Bank and the IMF had increased people's vulnerability to disaster.” Despite this and despite “reformulating, renaming and giving a 'human face'” to such policies in the 1990s, “the effects have continued.”(24)

For example, in 1998, having been struck by Hurricane Mitch, El Salvador benefited from an increase in international aid and was encouraged to implement advance planning for future disasters, especially in relation to mitigation and prevention interventions. Despite being in this advantageous position to implement the lessons learn from Hurricane Mitch, in reviewing the recovery plan tabled by the government of El Salvador following the earthquakes of early 2001 Wisner notes that very little mitigation and prevention had actually been put in place between the 1998 hurricane and the 2001 earthquakes.

Wisner analysed the recovery plan in terms of the degree to which it dealt with root causes of disaster vulnerability, namely, the economic and political marginality of much of the population and environmental degradation. Having do so, Wisner provides an explanation that traced the failure to implement mitigation and preventive actions to a combination of the El Salvador government's extreme form of neoliberal, free market ideology which diverted resources away from such programs, and deep fissures and mistrust in a country that followed a long and bloody civil war.(25)

Whilst Wisner argues that it is not the case that “power and material interests fully determine a disastrous outcome”, he nonetheless strongly argues that “a full understanding of such disasters is impossible without taking the political economy into account.”(26)

This linkage that Wisner identified between neoliberalism and the resultant diversion of economic resources away from social programs and infrastructure is also applicable to the Haitian disaster in 2010; Haiti has been financially unable to invest in infrastructure due in large part to odious debt obligations and the resultant adherence to neoliberal polices mandated as conditionalities for loans and aid. Indeed, The Lancet has reported that a “key factor affecting Haiti’s national expenditure on public health is its external debt”(27) and Gary Young also potently observed just a few weeks after the 2010 earthquake that whilst paying this debt Haiti “spent more in 2008 servicing its debt than it did on health, education and the environment combined and that has now been flattened.”(28)

Part Two: The Historical Origins of Haiti's Social Calculus

As is often cited, Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere but in addition to which Haiti is also one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of wealth distribution. For a country as poor as Haiti the 2010 earthquake was a trigger to a massive social disaster, a disaster that was not only considerably amplified in a number of different ways by the country's poverty and resultant lack of development but one that could have conversely also been significantly mitigated against in the absence or reduction of this poverty.

Although the level of Haiti's poverty is often cited the causes of this poverty are rarely dealt with in any detail, it is also the case that this poverty is not simply a reflection of a nation unable to govern itself as is often reported as part of the dominant 'failed state' narrative. Indeed, since its independence in 1804 Haiti has almost continually been the unwilling recipient of significant external influence, including direct military occupation and a crippling indemnity as well as subtler forms of influence, particularly economically.

Neoliberalism and Debt in Haiti

Within the space constraints here it is all but impossible to address in anything but an overview and with specifically selected examples the history of external influence on Haiti's impoverishment. It is more than unfortunate that Haiti's history for the outset is one littered with external interventions that has so dramatically steered its developmental course towards the social calculus we see today.

The focus here is simply on the neoliberal and debt aspects of Haitian impoverishment as there factors have been directly linked to vulnerability.

In this regard, I only address two of a litany of possible pre-earthquake examples, the French indemnity and debts acquired during the Duvalier dynasty.

French Indemnity

As a recent PN blog piece outlines, from the outset of Haiti's existence, following independence in 1804, its developmental path has been, a successful slave revolt against a colonial master

The Haitian revolution cast a long “cast a long shadow over the history of the New World”(29), the result of which was that upon self-liberation “Haitians found themselves in a a world entirely hostile to the idea of self-governing blacks.”(30) The world powers at the time set out to “suppress the revolt” and in doing so “prevent the contagion of rebellion from spreading to other slaves in the New World”, particularly in theirs own colonies.(31)

The war for independence was also both brutal and devastating for its people and the country itself.(32) These effects also impacted on Haiti's susceptibility to external pressures, both economic and military. “With its economy ruined by its revolutionary war,” Pinto writes, “Haiti was forced to agree to unfair trading relationships with nations that refused to recognize its sovereignty.”(33)

Unlike other imperial powers at the time, France having done so in 1825 and with Britain following suit in 1833, the US refused to recognise Haiti until 1862 and only then so it could effectively deport many of its newly freed slaves to the country.(34)

“Absurdly,” Farmer points out, following Haiti's liberation “the French demanded reparations, and not just for the losses of French plantations but for the losses of their slaves, too.”(35)

In 1825, France sent an armada to retake Haiti and a French invasion was averted only when the young nation agreed to pay the demanded indemnity and accept French trading terms. The indemnity represented “an immense sum” and even when reduced in 1830 it was, as noted, still “far more than Haiti could afford.”(36) Indeed, “indebtedness to France continued to shackle the fiscal operations of Haitian governments. The initial indemnity, extracted as a price of independence from France, was the basis of perennial financial crises in Haiti for the next century.”(37)

The 1825 indemnity was not finally paid off until 1947.(38)

Historian Alex von Tunzelmann has noted that by 1900 Haiti “was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments” of the indemnity and its related loans. The consequence of which was that instead of developing its potential through investment, Haiti was spiralling into debt and chaos. Paying off the indemnity and its interest left Haiti “destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile. Haiti was trapped in a downward spiral, from which it is still impossible to escape. It remains hopelessly in debt to this day.”(39)

Duvalier Dynasty

Only ten years after the French indemnity was finally paid off Francois Duvalier came to power in an 1957 election which has been described by historians as having been stolen on his behalf by the Haitian army, a legacy of the US occupation.(40) Upon taking office the populist platform on which he had campaigned was set aside for an almost immediate adoption of “terror as his main means of governing”.(41)

The Duvalier dynasty not only left between 30,00-60,000 Haitians dead with countless more raped, beaten and tortured, but also left the country heavily indebted.

The scale of this indebtedness was such that even as the seismic reverberations of the 2010 earthquake were felt around Haiti around 45% of the country's external debt belonged to loans and payments made during the Duvalier dynasty.(42)

As mentioned, not only was Haiti saddled with this debt, but as was reported in The Lancet in 2008 the payment of the debt, as with the French indemnity before it, diverted resources away from basic social provisions, noting that a “key factor affecting Haiti’s national expenditure on public health is its external debt” which was significantly “incurred during the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier” and his son.(43)

Whilst paying this debt Haiti “spent more in 2008 servicing its debt than it did on health, education and the environment combined and that has now been flattened” by the 2010 earthquake.(44)

Odious Debt

That these debts are indeed odious is hard to dispute, especially when Cephas Lumina, the United Nation's Independent Expert on foreign debt, has described the debt as “one of the best examples of odious debt in the world. On that basis alone the debt should be unconditionally cancelled.”(45)

What particularly compounds the odious nature of these debts is the subterfuge with which many of the original loan payments were granted, particularly in relations to appeals made to the US Congress by the Reagan administration of democratic and human rights improvements in Haiti under Jean-Claude Duvalier's regime. Despite the reporting of widespread human rights abuses and crackdowns on political opposition, press freedom and other democratic values, which included Jean-Claude Duvalier declaring himself president for life and giving himself the right to appoint his successor, the US government continually hailed Duvalier's democratic progress and improvements in these areas, pronouncements that paved the way for US loans.(46)

On July 22, 1985 Haitians went to the polls to vote in a referendum, the result of which approved Jean-Claude Duvalier as the president for life and provided for his right to designate his successor as well as a new law regulating political parties. This was followed by the assertion that these measures represented an “official encouraging of the development of political pluralism.” Human Rights Watch categorised the reported voter turn out and results of this referendum as “preposterous” and “meaningless”.(47) In doing so, in a report published in October 1985, the organisation also commented on its findings regarding human rights under the hereditary dictatorship, particularly in relation to political rights following the referendum and appeals to political pluralism:

The findings of this report indicate that, far from encouraging the development of political pluralism, the Haitian government is attempting to silence or to wipe out those institutions that represent such elements of political pluralism as have been present in Haiti. It is stifling opposition political parties; shutting down the independent press; attempting to silence the Church; and terrorising members of the intelligentsia who have attempted to speak out about Haiti's critical economic and social problems.”(48)

Introduced in to Haitian legislature on June 8, 1985 and unanimously adopted, the Political Parties Law in practice “nullify Article 43 of the Haitian Constitution and make it impossible for any opposition party to function.”(49)

A month after the passing of the Political Parties Law, then US Ambassador Clayton McManaway gave a speech on 4th July, 1985 in which he described the new law as “an encouraging step forward.”(50) On July 23, 1985 the State Department itself added overall praise to the Duvalier regime following the referendum, stating that “the press in Haiti has known a growing freedom of expression in recent months” and the “progress... has been made toward greater freedom of expression in Haiti.” Human Rights Watch described these comments as “false assertions”.(51)

In an Orwellian turn, in response to such 'progress', the Reagan administration proceeded to certified to Congress that “democratic development” was occurring in Haiti, the designation of which allowed more than $50 million in military and economic aid to flow to Jean-Claude Duvalier's regime. The New York Times reported in November 1993 that Jean-Claude Duvalier “received nearly $400 million in American economic aid until a popular revolt toppled his Government” in February 1986.(52)

As The Lancet has reported, despite both the mismanagement of foreign aid during the Duvalier family dictatorship and the increasing political repression and undemocratic nature of the regime “generous aid continued to flow during much of that time, mainly from the USA.”(53)

Alex von Tunzelmann, writing in 2009, noted that most of the money lent to Haiti during the Duvalier Dynasty “found its way into private bank accounts.” Despite the fact that the debts incurred by the Duvalier's make up 45% of Haiti’s total 2009 debt, “none of the creditors finds the fact of their complicity a compelling argument for cancellation.”(54)

A list of those creditors includes the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the IMF and the governments of the US and France.

Naomi Klein has pointed out that even if all these debts were cancelled immediately they still would have exacted a disastrous toll on the Haitian people. Specifically in relation to the 2010 earthquake and the conditions in which it struck Klein makes the salient observation that every debt payment made was effectively taking money away from infrastructure and social provisions that would have mitigated the disaster that followed the earthquake. It is, after all, Haiti's weak infrastructure, Klein points out, that “turns challenges into disasters and disasters into full-fledged catastrophes”.(55)

Whilst support for the Duvalier dynasty was not universal, without such economic support the dictatorship would not have been able to survival for as long as it did. When it finally fell in 1986 it was a popular uprising that faced significant threat that saw to its end.

Indeed, in the months that followed the US ambassador's 1985 Independence Day speech a “wave of antigovernment protests swept across the country, precisely because the Haitian people saw no “encouraging step forward”.”(56) This popular up swell had grown into a collective crescendo of protests and cries against the dictatorial regime as a new generation of Haitian's were coming of age in the slums of Port-au-Prince who were “open to the appeal of liberation theology in the coded sermons of radical priests,” chief among whom was Jean-Bertrand Aristide. These calls were taken up by the mass movement of people rising to the point that in February 1986 Jean-Claude Duvalier was forced into exile by a population demanding social justice.(57)

Leaving in the early hours of February 7, 1986 the younger Duvalier “boarded a United States Air Force jet and fled to the south of France” where upon his arrival Duvalier “rejoined an expatriated fortune estimated at $400 million to $600 million - equivalent to about twice Haiti's annual budget - and left behind the poorest country in the hemisphere and one of the poorest on earth.” This came against a backdrop of in the previous year, 1985, 90% of Haitians subsisted on less than $185 a year.(58)

Neoliberal Conditionalities

Another odious legacy of the Duvalier dynasty was Jean-Claude Duvalier's attempt during his dictatorial reign to turn Haiti into the “Taiwan of the Caribbean”. With support from the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Haiti became “the site for offshore textile plants, alternatively called Free-Trade Zones, Export Processing Zones, maquiladoras, and sweatshop”.(59)

In 1981 a USAID-World Bank development strategy was initiated in Haiti in which “a historic change toward deeper market interdependence with the United States” was envisioned, but as Noam Chomsky has commented, “Haiti remained Haiti, not Taiwan, which had followed a radically difference course”.(60)

Perhaps one of the most potent examples of the impact of neoliberal conditionalities on the health and wealth of Haiti is their impact on domestic agricultural production, particularly in relation to the growing of rice.

It was the export-processing zones that lead not only to the United Nations Development Program to declare them a failure but to USAID admitting that they would “relentlessly squeeze the domestic rice farmer”.(61)

Haiti went from being essentially self-sufficient in rice production to being almost entirely dependant on imported rice. The consequence of this transformation eventually became so extreme in its devastating effects that it elicited an unprecedented confession of guilt and responsibility on the part of one of the key proponents of the policy, president Clinton.

The roots of Haiti’s nutrition crisis go back to the decline in agricultural production,” writes Patralekha Chatterjee. According to many analysts both within and outside the country Haiti was almost self-sufficient in rice production, but “in 1995, when international institutions pressured Haiti to cut import tariffs on rice from 50% to 3%, cheap subsidised rice from the USA started coming into the country. Urban consumers benefited for a while from the low-cost imports, but they caused national rice production to plummet.” As of 2008, when Chatterjee was writing, Haiti was importing “80% of the rice it consumes - just as world prices have doubled.”(62)

In addition to the issues with rice production, Paul Farmer has pointed out that Haiti was also “once the world's leading exporter of sugar” but due to economic reforms is now “a net importer of subsidised sugar from the United States and elsewhere.”(63)

This plummeting of domestic agricultural production had a direct three-fold effect, included in which was the deteriorating of the nutritional status of children with surveys indicating “an alarming increase in malnutrition in urban areas.” Another effect was, according to a report by PAHO’s Health in Americas, “the widening of the trade deficit due to a rise in imports, notably food products” and that this “has been largely responsible for the devaluation of the country’s currency and the rise in cost of living”.(64) A third effect was noted in 2010 by the World Food Programme who stressed the point that the dramatic shift in sourcing of rice also left Haiti entirely vulnerable to international prices and economic buoyancy:

Haiti is considered as one of the countries most affected by recent skyrocketing prices on the international market. The rapid rise in the price of cereals and energy products was immediately reflected on the national markets due to the country's heavy dependence on imports.”(65)

This later effect was also highlighted in 2009 by John Mazzeo from DePaul University who noted that the impact of the global rise in food prices “reached a breaking point in Haiti” due to its “growing dependence on foreign food imports”. This decrease in the “affordability of imported food further exacerbated high rates of malnutrition” in Haiti which already “rank[ed] along with Afghanistan and Somalia as one of the three countries of the world with the worst daily caloric deficit per inhabitant.”(66)

A fourth indirect effect was a cruel twist of fate which specifically related to the earthquake, namely that after the “US dumped its subsidised surplus” of rice on Haiti following these economic reforms “[t]ens of thousands of rice farmers were forced to move to the jerry-built slums of Port-au-Prince” relocating them straight into what would become the 2010 disaster zone.(67)

One of the ironies of the decline in domestic rice production in Haiti is the one-sided nature of the liberalisation process. The shift from domestic agricultural production to providing cheap factory labour and the lowering of tariffs and protection was demanded by the US with appeals to free market theory whilst American farmers were heavily subsidised. During the Reagan administration such US exemptions to free market fundamentals provided 40 percent of US growers gross income in 1987 whilst Haitian farmers were forced from their lands.(68)

Failed Policy

Indeed, a 1995 USAID report noted the natural consequences of such policies, observing that the “export-driven trade and investment policy” mandated by Washington will “relentlessly squeeze the domestic rice farmer”.(69)

The lack of controversy on this point is such that even the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has acknowledged such specific neoliberal reforms in Haiti have not worked in the manner in which they were supposed to, reporting that “[w]hat has worked in one place may not work in another”, noting that “both Mauritius and Haiti are island economies that created export-processing zones” but where such were “highly successful in Mauritius” they were “failures in Haiti.”(70)

The scale of the devastation stemming from these policies was such that it managed to extract an unprecedented apology by one of the leading proponents and implementers of the policy, former US president Bill Clinton:

“It has not worked. It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. It was a mistake that I was a party to. I am not pointing the finger at anybody. I did that. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else.”(71)

Despite such candour, and the importance of which, under his stewardship of the reconstruction effort Clinton could, as co-chair of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, could demand the reversal of these policies. Instead of doing so, in the days after the earthquake it was reported that Clinton “wants to build up Haiti's export-processing zones”(72)

Postscript: The 'gold rush'

In the wake of the earthquake leaked documents have revealed that the earthquake itself was seen as an opportunity to further impose neoliberal and corporate control over the country.

As Haitians were still being pulled from the rubble US ambassador Kenneth Merten announced a corporate “gold rush” had began. “As Haiti digs out from the earthquake,” Merten wrote, “different [US] companies are moving in to sell their concepts, products and services” in what he described as “a veritable free-for-all.”(73)

Ambaddador Merten was not alone in seeing the opportunities the disaster afforded, other examples of what Naomi Klein has termed 'disaster capitalism' also occurred almost immediately after the earthquake had struck.(74)

This disaster is an opportunity to accelerate oft-delayed reforms,” James Dobbins, a special envoy to Haiti under President Clinton and director of the International Security and Defence Policy Centre at the Rand Corporation, argued, with a view to “breaking up or at least reorganising the government-controlled telephone monopoly” and restructuring the ports. In other words, privatising what little is left of the country's state enterprises and infrastructure whilst the Haitian opulation was still in a state of shock, disorientation and dislocation.(75)

This followed the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US Think Tank, which had issued a statement within less than twenty-four hours of the earthquake announcing the potential benefits of applying the shock doctrine in Haiti:

In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti earthquake offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region.”(76)

The tragedy of the “gold rush”, along with the international community undermining of the 2011 presidential election, is that they signify that the long and torturous external hand in Haitian affairs looks set to continue, even after the worldwide shock and subsequent outpouring of grief and sympathy following the earthquake. That little has change in this regard is sobering in the face of the scale of the disaster that inflicted further pain, misery and suffering on an already suffering people.


In specific relation to issues of debt that have been outlined here in relation to Haiti, Wisner et al argue that “the programmes for managing international debt imposed on many of these [poor] countries” has “increased people's vulnerability to disaster.” There are also examples of how “evidence cutbacks in public expenditure on health and social protection were undermining the resilience of poor people to natural hazards.”(77)

Whilst Wisner argues that it is not the case that “power and material interests fully determine a disastrous outcome” in the wake of an extreme natural event he also emphasises that “a full understanding of such disasters is impossible without taking the political economy into account.”(78)

Perhaps, therefore, the most telling statistic relating to the 2010 earthquake is that it was more than twice as lethal as any other magnitude 7.0 earthquake, for in this one statistic is the beginnings of understanding the fate that has befallen, or more aptly, been cast upon Haiti. The scale of the unnatural disaster that was triggered by the 2010 earthquake highlights the long history of external exploitation that has led Haiti from a country of stupendous wealth to where it currently resides in the global order, in the depths of economic misery, political instability and Dickensian squalor.

Gary Young commented in the wake of the 2010 earthquake that “Haiti is not a failed state; it's a state that has been failed since its birth, and precisely because of the nature of its birth” - a slave revolt against the ruling world powers.(79) Yet despite this, and its remarkable early historical achievements, a prevailing narrative exists that routinely fails to see the external processes that have significantly contributed to Haiti's plight and fails to see its history as anything more that a cycle of despair.

The social calculus of vulnerability that was present in Haiti as the earthquake struck was a man made calculus and one in which the international community has played a significant, but largely unacknowledged, hand.

For things to change in Haiti, as I mentioned in a previous blog, at the very least its history and our role in in must be remember.


1. US Geological Survey. Originally accessed July 7, 2011

2. UNICEF (2010) Children of Haiti: Milestones and Looking Forward at Six Months, July 12, 2010

3. Bilham, Roger (2010) Lessons from the Haiti earthquake, Nature, Vol. 463, No. 7283, p. 878

4. Potter, Amy E., (2009) Voodoo, zombies, and mermaids: U.S. newspaper coverage of Haiti, The Geological Review, Vol. 99, No. 2, pp. 208-230

5. Wisner, Ben; Blaikie, Piers; Cannon, Terry; and Davis, Ian (2004: Second Edition) At risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability and Disasters, London: Routledge, p. 237; Emphasis in original

6. Wisner, Ben (2001b) Capitalism and the Shifting Spatial and Social Distribution of Hazard and Vulnerability, Australian Journal of Emergency Management, Vol. 16, No. 2, p. 45

7. Richter, Charles F., (1935) An Instrumental Earthquake Magnitude Scale, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 1-32; A copy is vailable here.

8. US Geological Survey (2004) The Severity of an Earthquake, General Interest Publications. Originally accessed July 7, 2011

9. Jackson, Stephen (2006) Un/natural Disasters, Here and There, Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences, New York: Social Science Research Council, 2006 June 11

10. Smith, Neil (2006) There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster, Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences, New York: Social Science Research Council, 2006 June 11

11. Wisner et al (2004), p. 281

12. Wisner et al (2004), p. 281

13. World Bank and United Nations (2010) Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention, November 10, 2010

14. World Bank and United Nations (2010), p. 1; Emphasis in original

15. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (2001) World Disasters Report 2001: Focus on Recovery, 2001

16. Wisner et al (2004), p. 281

17. Wisner et al (2004), p. 282

18. World Bank (2001) World Development Report 2000/2001: Attacking Poverty, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 1

19. World Bank (2001), p. 170

20. Wisner et al (2004), pp. 22-23

21. Wisner et al (2004), pp. 22-23

22. Jackson (2006)

23. Wisner et at (2004), p. 24

24. Wisner et at (2004), p. 26

25. Wisner (2001a)

26. Wisner (2001b), p. 45

27. Chatterjee, Patralekha (2008) Haiti’s Forgotten Emergency, The Lancet, Vol. 372, No. 9639, pp. 615-618

28. Younge, Gary (2010) The west owes Haiti a bailout. And it would be a hand-back, not a handout, The Guardian, January 31, 2010

29. Hickey, Donald R., (1982) America's Response to the Slave Revolt in Haiti, 1791-1806, Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 2, No. 4, p. 361

30. Farmer, Paul (1992) AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame, London: University of California Press, p. 164

31. Hickey (1982), p. 361

32.Chomsky, Noam (1993) Year 501: The Conquest Continues, Boston: South End Press, p. 199

33. Pinto, Andrew D., (2010) Denaturalising “natural” Disasters: Haiti’s Earthquake and the Humanitarian Impulse, Open Medicine, Vol. 4, No. 4,, p. 193; Also see Hallward, Peter (2007) Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment. London: Verso

34. Chomsky (1993)

35. Farmer, Paul (2011) Haiti After the Earthquake, New York: PublicAffairs, p. 127

36. Henley, John (2010) Haiti: A Long Descent to Hell, The Guardian, January 14, 2011

37. Schmidt, Hans (1971) The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934, Toronto: Rutgers State University Press, p. 25

38. Pinto (2010), p. 193; Hallward (2007); Von Tunzelmann, Alex (2009) Haiti: The Land Where Children Eat Mud, The Sunday Times, May 17, 2009

39. Von Tunzelmann (2009)

40. For example see Treaster, Joseph B., (1987) Duvalier Candidates and a Killing Blunt Optimism of Haiti Voters, New York Times, October 20, 1987; Treaster, Joseph B., (1987) Elections in Haiti: A Struggle and a Feud, New York Times, November 22, 1987

41. Treaster, Joseph B., (1987) Haitian Capital Slowed by Strike Over Aborted Voter, New York Times, December 8, 1987

42. Henley (2010)

43. Chatterjee (2008), p. 616

44. Younge (2010)

45. Klein, Naomi (2010) Haiti: A Creditor, Not a Debtor, The Nation, March 1, 2010

46. Human Rights Watch (1985) Haiti: Human Rights Under Hereditary Dictatorship, October 1985, pp. 31-33; Amnesty International (1981) Haiti: Human Rights Violations, October 1980 - October 1981, November 1, 1981; Amnesty International (1984) Haiti: Recent testimonies from former Prisoners of Conscience, March 1, 1984; Amnesty International (1985) Violations of Human Rights in Haiti, March 1985

47. Human Rights Watch (1985), p. 1, p. 3 and p. 4

48. Human Rights Watch (1985), p. 2

49. Human Rights Watch (1985), pp. 5-7

50. Human Rights Watch (1985), p. 30

51. Human Rights Watch (1985), pp. 31-33

52. Weiner, Tim (1993b) C.I.A. Formed Haitian Unit Later Tied to Narcotics Trade, New York Times, November 14,1993

53. Farmer, Paul; Smith-Fawzi, Mary C.,; and Nevil, Patrice (2003) Unjust embargo of aid for Haiti, The Lancet, Vol. 361, No. 9355, p. 420

54. Von Tunzelmann (2009)

55. Klein (2010)

56. Miles, Melinda and Charles, Eugenia (eds) (2004) Let Haiti Live: Unjust U.S. Policies Towards Its Oldest Neighbor, Coconut Creek: Educa Vision

57. Hallward (2004), pp. 27-28

58. Danner, Mark M., (1987) The struggle for a democratic Haiti, New York Times Magazine, June 21, 1987

59. Schuller, Mark (2010) Clearing the Rubble, Including the Old Plan for Haiti, The Huffington Post, March 8, 2010

60. Chomsky, Noam (1999) Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, London: Seven Stories Press, p. 107

61. UNDP (2010) Human Development Report 2010: The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development, 2010, p. 104; USAID quote cited in Chomsky (1999), p. 108

62. Chatterjee (2008), p. 616

63. Farmer (2011), p. 35

64. Chatterjee (2008), p. 616

65. World Food Programme (2010) Rapid Post-Earthquake Emergency Food Security Assessment, March 2010, p. 10

66. Mazzeo, John (2009) Laviche: Haiti's Vulnerability to the Global Food Crisis, NAPA Bulletin, No. 32, p. 115

67. Milne, Seumas (2011) Haiti's Suffering is a Result of Calculated Impoverishment, The Guardian, January 22, 2011

68. Chomsky (1999), p. 108

69. Chomsky (1999), p. 108

70. UNDP (2010), p. 104

71. Quoted in Farmer (2011), p. 150

72. Milne (2010)

73. Herz, Ansel and Ives, Kim (2011) WikiLeaks: Wikileaked Cables Reveal - After Quake, a 'Gold Rush' for Haiti Contracts, Haiti Liberte, June 15, 2011

74. Klein, Naomi (2007) The Shock Doctrine, London: Penguin Books; (Klein first uses the phrase on p. 6)

75. Younge (2010)

76.  MacDonald, Isabel (2010) 'New Haiti,' Same Corporate Interests, The Nation, 15 February, 2010

77. Wisner et at (2004), p. 24

78. Wisner (2001b), p. 45

79. Younge (2010)

Topics: Haiti