Blog: Hurricane Matthew in Haiti: Just another natural disaster?

By Kasia Mika

Researcher Dr. Kasia Mika discusses Hurricane Matthew’s effect on Haiti, why natural disasters are anything but, and how helpful helping really is.

The destruction caused by hurricane Matthew in Haiti is not entirely natural nor is it unique. Rather, the cyclone unearthed  longer histories of environmental degradation, economic exploitation, political marginalization, and compound vulnerabilities that created the context for this deadly disaster.

Media reports, bird’s-eye images of the flattened city of Jéremie  in the south of Haiti, ever increasing death tolls , and calculations of the cost of the damage to which we are accustomed, hide the long-term factors and processes that directly affected the scale of Haiti’s most recent disaster and its aftermath. Instead, they offer a collage of easily connectable terms—natural catastrophe, damage, cholera, aid—that present a  neat and well-rehearsed narrative: a natural catastrophe hit Haiti causing a lot of damage and increasing the risk of a cholera epidemic so a lot of aid is needed now.

Indeed. But this is only a part of the whole story.

First, vulnerabilities, not hazards, cause disasters , as Ilan Kelman  (Reader in Risk, Resilience and Global Health at UCL) states. Hazards, as he goes on to explain,“can become disasters …  where a community’s ability to cope with an event is surpassed, whether that event is environmental or non-environmental and whether that event is or is not extreme.” And it is this ability to cope that has been systemically undermined over the  years in Haiti. Deforestation, centralization of all power and resources in the capital and away from the provinces – a process  that began under U.S. Occupation and continued in the form of imposed neoliberal economic policies –  rendered the coastal region particularly vulnerable.  Put this in context of the 2010 earthquake and its aftermath, the disastrous reconstruction that followed, the “building back better’’  of the very structures of exploitation that only exacerbate Haiti’s poverty, and it becomes clear that were other, more severe blows that hit the country long before Matthew swept through the island.

Second, the cholera epidemic is not a direct consequence of this most recent disaster. Prior to the 2010 earthquake, there were no cases of cholera recorded in Haiti. That changed with the arrival of  UN peace keepers. They were the source of a major outbreak that killed at least 10 000 people and sickened hundreds of thousands more.  In the aftermath of the hurricane, it is all the  more urgent to contribute towards the improvement of Haiti’s water and sanitation systems, to protect communities most at risk.

Finally, not all aid is good. What’s needed is solidarity not charity. As the Dutch Marines are on their way from Curaçao to Haiti to join the relief efforts, it is all the more important to remember that in order to really make a difference, aid needs to address the root causes and not just offer immediate remedies. If restoration and recovery are to be complete, they must eliminate  both the structures of exploitation and the discourses of Haiti’s ‘permanent’ vulnerability. As such, it is best to donate money (not old clothes or unwanted items) to Haitian-led efforts  staffed by people who have the necessary expertise to help. If we really want to make a difference, we need to contribute to long-term investments and initiatives that strengthen Haiti’s food sovereignty and community preparedness, and work toward decreasing vulnerabilities.

Too often Haiti’s future has been configured by external agencies acting in their best interest, not Haiti’s. Too often aid and reconstruction  effectively disabled the very communities they were meant to serve.  It is high time we start listening to local grassroots organizations and let them determine the course of action. Only such radical change of attitude and practice will help prevent another  humanitarian disaster.

(Kasia Mika is a postdoc researcher at KITLV. Her research interests include, among others, disaster studies, postcolonial and diaspora studies, comparative literature, narratives of disasters, aesthetics of violence, and trauma studies.)

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