Written by Jennifer Halsall (Bachelor of Journalism, Carleton University).
Nominated by Professor A. Diptee
This January marks the sixth anniversary of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. If past anniversaries are any indication, the Canadian media will mark the occasion with the insignificant repetition of a long-established narrative: that Haitians, still shaken by disaster, are suffering from poverty and plagued by government corruption. Rarely do we consider the implications of such superficial coverage: As international spectators, this is one of our greatest faults.
Though earthquake-based coverage often fails to touch upon it, both Canada and the United States have played key roles in Haiti’s development. Through military occupation, economic embargoes, and the corruption of democratic elections, these powers have greatly influenced the country’s development to suit their own economic interests. Following the reelection of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2000, Canada and the U.S. enacted an aid embargo that saw Haiti’s national budget shrink to $300 million.1 This, for a country of 8 million people, was a direct attack on Aristide and his reluctance to implement neoliberal economic policies –policies which have, historically, served to benefit Haiti’s international benefactors far more than the country itself. The culmination of continued Canadian and American pressure eventually resulted in a 2004 coup that would see Aristide exiled to the Central African Republic.
The issue of intervention is by no means stuck in the past. Even now, through the continuation of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and sustained funding to a proliferation of NGOs, western powers continue to define Haiti’s role on the global stage. Most obviously, this occurs through the current aid system, in which international NGOs act as tools for accomplishing foreign policy objectives.
It’s a system founded on the widely-reported perception of corruption within Haiti’s government. As Haiti cycled through foreign-backed coups and periods of instability, this perception worsened, giving international players the opportunity to drastically cut aid funding to the supposedly unreliable state. Instead, the money was dispersed amongst international NGOs, prompting their numbers to swell from 200 in 1984 to more than 10,000 in 2010.2 The switch to NGOs has had a number of drastic consequences, including the significant weakening of the authority of Haiti’s government, which was no longer able to provide adequately for its people.
The NGO system is more than a hindrance to the development of the state –in many cases, it has actively worked against it. International NGOs often have no accountability to Haitians; only their donors overseas. The situation is dire enough that Haiti’s Southeast Regional Planning Director admitted “his greatest frustration was that there were a number of foreign NGOs operating in his department without his knowledge, and that some of these organizations were doing the same activities in the same locality.”3
In diminishing the capacity of Haiti’s government, the international community has created a patchwork parallel system. In this system, critical services are regionalized and dependent on foreign donations, which can cease without notice. This further politicizes the nature of aid, as the main donors for many large NGOs are the governments of interventionist states. Too often, funding becomes contingent on political objectives: such was the case in 2000, when the United States allocated $3 million in aid funding to support opposition parties working against Aristide.4
It is not difficult in Haiti to find opposition to western involvement. Domestic newspapers have frequently critiqued both the aid system and the ongoing UN presence, though Le Nouvelliste has been especially well-spoken: “At best, MINUSTAH tries to hide – and again, very poorly – their lack of ‘ambition’ and lack of ‘big picture’ for Haiti,” reads one 2010 article. “Our international tutors are only with us in the process of disappearing our future, in the collapse of our despair and insipid woes.”5
So what can be learned from these events? Chiefly, that our media has failed us. In August and October this year, Haiti held presidential and legislative elections. Despite the huge implications the vote could have for the country, the bulk of the international coverage was scarce and topical, referencing only violence at the polls and Haiti’s continued poverty in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. This coverage, focusing on violence and despair, further validates continued western intervention in Haiti.
It is also wrong. Neither corruption, nor poverty, nor the earthquake have seriously crippled Haiti; that action was taken long ago by the very countries that claim to help.
1. Isabel MacDonald, “Parachute journalism” in Haiti: Media sourcing in the 2003-2004 political crisis.” Canadian Journal of Communication 33 no. 2(2008): 216.
2. Francois Pierre-Louis, “Earthquakes, Nongovernmental Organizations, and Governance in Haiti,” Journal of Black Studies 42, no. 2 (2011), 190
3. Ibid., 197.
4. Ira Kurzban, “A rational foreign policy toward Haiti and how the media shapes public perception in Haiti,” University of Miami Law Review 56, no. 2 (2002): 407.
5. Justin Podur, Haiti’s New Dictatorship: The Coup, the Earthquake, and the UN Occupation (London; Toronto, ON: Pluto Press, 2012), 2.
Kurzban, Ira J. 2002. A rational foreign policy toward Haiti and how the media shapes public perception in Haiti. University of Miami Law Review 56 (2): 405-412.
Macdonald, Isabel. 2008. “Parachute journalism” in Haiti: Media sourcing in the 2003-2004 political crisis. Canadian Journal of Communication 33 (2): 213-228.
Pierre-Louis, Francois. “Earthquakes, Nongovernmental Organizations, and Governance in Haiti,” Journal of Black Studies 42, no. 2 (2011): 186-202.
Podur, Justin J. 2012. Haiti’s new dictatorship: The coup, the earthquake and the UN occupation. London; Toronto: Pluto Press.