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Haiti’s earthquake in the context of decades of forced poverty


By Bob Thomson*

Peter Hallward noted in yesterday’s Guardian (London, January 13, 2010): “Along with sending emergency relief, we should ask what we can do to facilitate the self-empowerment of Haiti’s people and public institutions.”

One possible brigaltht side to this disaster, as we saw after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, might be that civil society, in the face of government inability to respond to such a major disaster in the first few days, can come through and realize that communities are able to organize themselves, without the help (or interference) of a corrupt or inept government and the international institutions that support it. In Mexico, this set the stage for a flowering of community, neighbourhood, regional and national organizations which eventually played a major role in the overthrow of a 70 year old institutionalized governing party.

Even the distribution of emergency aid, before community reconstruction begins, if put into the hands of people and communities themselves, can develop democratic capacities and strengthen people over a corrupt government. It could also, if so directed, strengthen the hands of the few people in government who might want to tip the old historical imbalances in favour of the people.

Hallward adds: “Haiti’s poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic post colonial oppression. …The noble ‘international community’ which is currently scrambling to send its ‘humanitarian aid’ to Haiti is largely responsible for the extent of the suffering it now aims to reduce.” Tracy Kidder in the New York Times says: “While earthquakes are acts of nature, extreme vulnerability to earthquakes is man made.”

Does they sound harsh? Having worked with Haitian NGOs and human rights groups, I can assure you they’re not harsh.

One can only hope that the Canadian and other UN troops in Haiti are not used to stifle independent community rescue and rehabilitation initiatives, and that assistance in the aftermath is directed at building community and civil society capacity, and not toward reinforcing the undemocratic government installed in the 2004 coup d’etat.

Think before you give. Research who your donations will go to, and ask which side of the balance you want be on when the evaluations are done next year. It might be worth waiting a few hours or days, to be sure you know which side you’re going to be on. Charity is a political as well as humanitarian act.

* Bob Thomson is an Ottawa consultant who has carried out evaluations of Canadian NGO and government rehabilitation and construction projects in the wakes of earthquakes in Mexico, Colombia and Chile.

Background articles
“Country Without a Net”, by Tracy Kidder (
“Our Role in Haiti’s Plight”, by Peter Hallward ( 

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