14 January 2010

Haiti and the Politics of Feeling Good

I suppose the devastating earthquake in Haiti this week is being seen as a great opportunity for Americans to feel good about themselves. One look at the rapid birth of aid hot lines, text donations, and humanitarian efforts being organized should normally make anyone proud. Of course, in the rush to feel good, we ignore a few unpleasant truths.

Haiti of course was once known to Europeans as Hispaniola. By 1495 C.E most knew it was part of a previously unknown continental land mass. The exception was Columbus who stubbornly insisted he had landed somewhere closer to India. Indigenous Taino peoples declined in population by about 90% during the first decade of Spanish Colonization as a result of the familiar combination of warfare, disease, and overwork. Because of the resulting lack of indigenous workers and the labor intensive needs of sugar plantations, Africans were imported as slaves from about 1508 C.E. Like much of Latin America, modern Haitians are a result of transculturation between Spanish, African, and Indigenous people. Haiti was the site of the only successful African slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere between 1791 C.E. and 1804 C.E. Despite obtaining self-rule from their French colonizers over sixty years before the abolition of slavery in the United States Haiti was unable to capitalize on their lead. Haiti was and is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Haiti has a population of just over nine million people and a per capita income of $1300. Annual foreign aid since 2004 lurks around $1 billion, with the U.S. providing about $230 million (2005-2006). Haitian exports total less than $500 million; imports are $1.5 billion (over 35% from the U.S). The majority of Haiti is mired in small-scale agricultural subsistence practices. Clearly Haiti is not self-sufficient domestically nor do they play any significant role in the world economy.

Now that an earthquake has killed tens of thousands and destroyed what little infrastructure existed, countries, including the U.S. are clamoring to hold press conferences pledging aid. The Obama administration pledged an initial $100 million which equals about 43% of our total annual Haitian aid package prior to the catastrophe. The American public enthusiastically texts their ten-dollar donations and makes sure everyone knows it. Celebrities hold hourly press conferences to display their generosity. Amidst pictures of death and misery, we proudly display images of the privileged few U.S. citizens we rescued from the chaos.

In case it is not self-evident, my question is where were we last week, last year, or for the last century and a half? Without argument, an investment in Haitian infrastructure and economy before this catastrophe would have possibly averted the staggering death toll and made much more sense on a humanitarian level. For you adherents to Rational Choice Theory, a more timely investment in Haiti would have also made better economic sense. Strengthening ones partners in a global economy generally has positive economic results at home. Especially when significant investment in Haiti could have been made for a pittance when compared to recent expenditures U.S taxpayers made to rescue failed business models from themselves. However in reality, once Haiti outlived its use as an economic colony, industrialized nations lost interest. Since it is not what most people consider a Caribbean paradise, tourists largely ignore Haiti as well. The sad result was that until 1:53 pm PST on 12 January 2010, most people in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world politely ignored Haiti; ignored the abject poverty; ignored the abysmally high AIDS/HIV and mortality rates; ignored the lawless squalor and ignored our responsibility as world citizens.

Haitians today are direct descendants of those who were originally brought there in chains. They were used for economic gain and when they outlived their use, they were forgotten and left to flounder. Sadly nature chose to remind the world that Haiti is still there. This is not a proud public relations moment for Americans, or anyone else. This is a sad reminder of our failure to live up to the ideals we constantly espouse.


  1. As a Haitian-American I just wanted to say thanks for that wonderful post.

  2. Thank you Fara, I appreciate your feedback and that you even read my post. I hope that any friends and family you have back home are ok?
    Since I posted this, it has come to light that most pledged money and aid is still undelivered. That is absolutely unforgivable in my opinion.