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Reframing the Discourse and Disaster: Narratives of Haiti

Few natural disasters are as prevalent as the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. With an estimated death toll of 300,000, it remains one of the worst natural disasters in world history. In the case of Haiti, this disaster was part of a series of events that some scholars have dubbed as a humanitarian invasion, in which an estimated three to ten thousand Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) now operate within the country, to varying degrees of success, and have drawn scathing criticism (Schuller, 2023). Including the NGO problem, there are several intertwined issues surrounding the core disaster narrative of the 2010 earthquake, such as historical economic issues and foreign intervention. The object of this article, then, is to reframe the current discourse and earthquake-centric narrative of Haiti and instead highlight the main, non-natural "disasters" that continue to plague the country after decades of foreign aid and a second earthquake. These disasters fall into three categories: the societal disaster, the NGO disaster, and the interventionist economic disaster.

Contextualising Haiti

Before framing the three disaster categories, it is important to understand contemporary Haiti to fully grasp the extent of these underlying problems that have been exasperated by the endless catastrophes befalling Haiti. As of 2023, an estimated $16 billion has been invested into the country, ultimately posing the provocative questions of where did the money go and what has been that investment's result (Schuller, 2023). Evidence from recent publications paints a concerning picture of how little the investments have affected Haiti today. The funding requests for Haiti from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) are the largest since the 2010 earthquake, with 5.2 million people in need of aid (OCHA, 2023). In addition, numerous people still live in post-earthquake makeshift camps, and there has been excessive brutal gang violence dominating over 80% of the Haitian capital (International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Cross Societies, 2023). With this understanding of the current crises facing the Haitian people then comes the need to categorise what is the cause of the continuing suffering.

Figure 1: UN peacekeepers take a break while working through the rubble of the UN mission in Haiti's headquarters in Port au Prince, in the aftermath of the devastating January 2010 earthquake.

The Three "Disasters" of Haiti

The Societal Disaster

Societal blights such as gang violence, political assassinations, and a refugee crisis have taken a prominent role in Haiti’s media presence. While the resurgence of groups such as G9 and G-Pep, two of the most relevant gangs in the capital, as well as the assassination of Jovenel Moïse in 2021, are worrying, these are not by any means a new phenomenon. In 1991, the "Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress" was already setting a violent precedence for self-governance by violence as used by gangs today, with the deaths of over 10,000 people during their coup against the Haitian government (Schuller, 2017). Schulz’s "Haiti Update" from the US Army College in 1997 only reinforced this precedent. As a prominent academic on US foreign policy towards Latin America, Schulz framed societal problems as part of an encroaching disaster for Haiti, emphasising that new systems of enforcement and due process would take generations to develop and could be threatened after the withdrawal of US peacekeeping forces that arrived as a result of the coup (Schulz, 1997). While this kind of violence is a major part of the societal disaster within Haiti, it is even more nuanced. Focusing on foreign intervention, for example, the terminology of Internally Displaced Person has even broken down some societal bonds, says Schuller. Schuller, a professor of Anthropology and Nonprofit and NGO Studies focusing on Haiti, argues that the prominent role of NGOs in aid distribution has pushed Haitians away from traditional practices, such as neighbours aiding each other or non-western family units, towards dependence on and competition for aid that has shaken up familial structures and societal bonds (Schuller, 2023). The societal disaster that afflicts Haiti is multi-faceted, but it is easy to see from these examples how Haitian society has been moulded towards competitive forms of existence that can be violent in nature, but also strike at core elements of tradition and culture, such as the typical family unit.

The NGO Disaster

There is a historical precedent for relying on NGOs within Haiti to fill gaps in times of crisis. NGOs have been active there since a tropical storm in 1954, but it was in 1978 that an outbreak of African Swine Fever destroyed the pig population of Haiti and put many into the hands of NGO food donations that began a dependency on aid (Schuller, 2017). Given these kinds of precedents, some scholars have been led to conclude that the abundance of NGO work in Haiti pre-earthquake created a lax government interest in fulfilling its obligations to its own populace and that the disaster itself should be seen as a "wake-up call" to the government (Dupoy, 2010). The work of NGOs, while well intended to provide aid, has unfortunately been a source of deep-rooted structural problems, as shown in both works produced by NGOs and scholarly debate. The founder and former director of the Centre for Global Prosperity, Carol Adelman, pointed out as much in their own work when they noted Haiti was being robbed of determining its own future as part of a vicious cycle (Adelman, 2011). Within this cycle, donors allocate funds specifically to NGOs due to a lack of confidence in the Haitian government. As a result, the capacity and legitimacy of the Haitian government to adequately respond to disasters such as the earthquake declined, looping around to more funds going back into NGOs. Theoretically, NGOs are helpful tools for governments, aiding states in fulfilling their obligations to the populace in times of crisis (Pierre-Louis, 2011). However, it is clear from the ongoing prevalence of NGOs in Haitian society, lack of trust in the government, and overall impacts of NGOs on Haitian life, that they have, in a way, become their own disaster.

Figure 2: Port-au-Prince Gang Territories, as estimated by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, October 2022.

The Interventionist Economic Disaster

Haiti’s economic disaster is a two-fold problem, one based on deep-rooted interventionist policies, as well as the afore-mentioned issue of financial aid exasperated by the physical disaster of the earthquakes and the impact of NGOs. For context, it is important to know that Haiti has not had control of its own economy since the 1990s, with the International Monetary Fund taking charge of the financial sector (Schuller, 2017). In the same time period, a turn towards a deregulatory policy headed by the US began, with tariffs on staples like rice going from 35% to 3% (Schuller, 2017). Dupoy expands the point further, noting that to the benefit of international trading partners and the Haitian elite, Haiti was transformed into a US-dependent food import state, increasing imports from 10% to between 60-80% (Dupoy, 2010). The writing on the wall with these reforms is very clear, especially in the context of a now heavily relying on trade capital city: if there was some great disaster that would damage the infrastructure required, there would be a need for relief.

To come back to Schulz’s 1997 report, it is interesting that the discourse takes the approach of these kinds of policies having to be implemented. In his argument, he highlights that while there would be short-term hardship, in the form of 10,000 new unemployed high-skilled workers from civil society, there would be long-term economic benefits (Schulz, 1997). However, this seems hard to justify, given he also takes into account the already blisteringly high 80% unemployment rate of the time, as well as the limited effects of $800 million worth of financial aid put into Haiti since 1994 (Schulz, v.). Hindsight is a beneficial tool, but it is also fair to assume that the stack of dominoes waiting to fall here could not have been looked past.

Figure 3: Net Official Aid and Development Assistance to Haiti, as estimated by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM), January 2020.


Schulz wrote in his report that the “report is pessimistic, but not hopeless” (Schulz, 1997, v.), believing in the possibility of success in the economic reforms despite the overwhelming challenges facing Haitian society before the disaster of 2010. However, in reframing works produced during the earthquakes and taking key contextual information from contemporary pre-earthquake sources, it is clear to see that there was little standing in the way between Haiti and complete collapse. The same question posed by Schuller, "what difference has been made by $16 billion worth of investment over 13 years" is the same posed by Schulz,"what difference did $800 million over 4 years" make? Adelman suggested post-2010 that Haiti "would be an interesting test if grassroots and privately financed projects could help break Haiti from this cycle" (2011, p.92). Taking current reports from NGOs today of the thus far unsurmountable challenges and the three disasters framed here, it is fair to say that this test has failed and has been failing for nearly 30 years. The next question that needs to be asked then of the NGOs, foreign interventionists, and the people of Haiti who these issues affect most then is what should be done differently now.

Bibliographical References

Adelman, C. (2011). Haiti: Testing the Limits of Government Aid and Philanthropy. The Brown Journal of World Affairs, 17(2), 89–97. Dupuy, A. (2010). Beyond the Earthquake: A Wake-Up Call for Haiti. Latin American Perspectives, 37(3), 195–204. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Haiti | Earthquake and Cholera Outbreak - Emergency Appeal № MDRHT018 - Operation update #5 - Haiti. (2023, May 31). ReliefWeb. Pierre-Louis, F. (2011). Earthquakes, Nongovernmental Organizations, and Governance in Haiti. Journal of Black Studies, 42(2), 186–202. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, (2023, April 13). United Nations and partners to issue call for US$720 million to address surging humanitarian needs in Haiti [EN/HT] - Haiti. ReliefWeb. Schuller, M. (2017). Haiti’s ‘Republic of NGOs.’ Current History, 116(787), 68–73. Schuller, M. (2023). Mòd Leta: Haitian Understandings of Crises Past in Present. In V. Joos, M. Munro, & J. Ribó (Eds.), The Power of the Story: Writing Disasters in Haiti and the Circum-Caribbean, 6, 27–49. Berghahn Books. Schulz, D. E. (1997). Haiti Update. Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Chappatte in Le Temps (2010), Save Haiti! [Cartoon]. Figure 1: Logan Abasi (2010), UN peacekeepers take a break while working through the rubble of the UN mission in Haiti's headquarters in Port au Prince, in the aftermath of the devastating January 2010 earthquake. [Photograph]. Figure 2: Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (2022), Port-au-Prince gang territories.[Map]. Figure 3: Committee for the Absolition of Illegitimate Debt (2022), Net Official Aid and Development Assistance to Haiti. [Chart].

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