Think before you give

International organizations in Haiti are not without fault

Haiti’s birth in our collective consciousness can be dated to 4:53 p.m., January 12, 2010.

The Onion recently published an article entitled “Massive Earthquake Reveals Entire Island Civilization Called ‘Haiti.’” I condescendingly chuckled at an initial glance but knew that I stood among the ignorant sympathizers the article targeted. Prior to the earthquake, Haiti was that country mentioned on flyers plastered across the dance school on Milton that I passed for three years on my walk to and from campus – flyers that decried the Canadian government’s presence in the country.

But things change. The YouTube-uploaded apocalyptic devastation and chaos that wrecked Port-au-Prince offered unshakable images. Like many others, I immediately ran to organize something – anything – to help. Voices of Haiti has been in the works now for over a week; it will be a night of local visual and oral art aimed at raising funds and spreading general awareness about Haiti. Money is not enough to help the broken country. Knowledge, too, must be donated to those digging deep into their pockets.

We initially planned to donate all the funds raised for Voices for Haiti to Médecins sans frontières (MSF), a great organization that has been working for over 20 years in Haiti and has been providing much-needed medical services after this devastation.

After a conversation with a local Haitian activist and artist, however, my co-organizer gave me a frantic phone call asserting that we had to rethink our financial support of MSF. Taken aback, I tried my hardest to reassure her that the concerns raised were perhaps unfounded and, at best, generalized. But as a former political science student, I knew these apprehensions had merits.

During disaster relief, we are quick to throw money at the problem. Our emotions and conscience get the best of us, as we leave reason somewhere else: it becomes inaccessible for a few weeks before apathy returns. In particular, we hastily assume that if an organization is, let’s say, international in nature and approach and also UN-certified or backed, then it must be the best outlet for our money, comprised of the best people to get “the job” done. Whatever that job is.

The truth is that while international organizations ranging from MSF to the International Red Cross do a great deal of good, they are not the answer to situations such as the one currently in Haiti. International organizations (IOs) are not free of political agendas, free of bias, or free of economic and personal interests.

Like any other organization, IOs require that there be both a constant need and a constant desire for their services and products: a market. They compete against one another; survival is a necessity, not an option. Relief organizations thrive on disaster, conflict, and the needs of the afflicted. Thus a population’s dependency on IOs and the unstable situations in troubled countries allow for such organizations to constantly expand: more funding, more credibility.

And while the efforts of relief organizations are extremely important and necessary in any disaster or conflict-ridden region, we must understand that sometimes these groups can do more harm than good.

In the case of Haiti, the population has become dependent on international agencies for many basic services. Rather than promoting sustainable development that looks at transferring dependence from foreign organizations to regional groups, international relief agencies perpetuate constant dependence – sometimes intentionally. There are allegations, for instance, that MSF along with other IOs in Haiti not only quell local activism that attempts long-term development to make Haitians less dependant on foreign services, but also that these groups supported the 2004 coup d’état, backed by the U.S.

We need to get beyond the “immediate relief” mentality. I am not in the least saying that we should forget about these organizations. We should support the work international organizations do, but also empower local groups that seek indigenous solutions to persisting socio-economic and political problems that have been plaguing a country like Haiti for decades.

Within days of the earthquake, representatives from American construction companies were already discussing reconstruction plans and costs. While reconstruction is certainly important, it is more important to consider how Haitians can prepare themselves and future generations for similar or worse disasters. How can youth, among the most marginalized in the country, be empowered to lead their country in a new direction?
It is also important to consider ecological factors that may have contributed to the enormity of the quake, such as the expansive deforestation that has been the result of the intimate relationship between corrupt government and hungry international corporations. Less than two per cent of Haiti remains forested. How can this and other issues be dealt with beyond “immediate relief?”

Immediate relief is just that – a response at the very moment catastrophe strikes. Relief is not a solution. Solutions are possible: they must be local and long-term.

So donate your money, your clothes, and your non-perishable food items. Do not hold back. At the same time, be aware of alternatives and realize that Haiti’s existence and problems exceed the past two weeks.

That being said, what are you doing Friday night?

Sana Saeed writes in this space every other week. Voices for Haiti will be held on Friday, January 29 at 7 p.m. in the Shatner Ballroom. For more info, send Sana an email: