10.22.08

A Disaster Worse Than Katrina

A critique of the 'new humanitarian order' raises troubling questions about foreign aid, humanitarian assistance, and respect for dignity and sovereignty.

A few weeks ago, I was trying to drive through the flooded Haitian city of Gonaives, which had been walloped by two hurricanes and was about to be hit, a day later, by Hurricane Ike. To my eye, the citizens seemed completely abandoned, even though their suffering had been in the news everywhere. Everyone we met, wading through filthy floodwater, was thirsty; some were injured; most were homeless. Gonaives reeked. Its people needed protection.

I wrote a note to my co-workers, observing that I’d never seen anything so terrible, except once before: in the same city, four years earlier. When in 2004 Tropical Storm Jean killed far more in Gonaives than would die on the Katrina-stricken Gulf Coast a year later, money for Haiti did finally come in. But four years later, it was hard to see where it had gone.

When in 2004 Tropical Storm Jean killed far more in Gonaives than would die on the Katrina-stricken Gulf Coast a year later, money for Haiti did finally come in. But four years later, it was hard to see where it had gone.

Per capita, Haiti, “the poorest country in the hemisphere,” has more nongovernmental organizations than any other country in the Caribbean. Haiti, with more private schools than elsewhere, has the region’s highest rates of illiteracy. It has more health-focused NGOs than its neighbors—I helped to found one there almost 25 years ago—and the worst health indicators in the Americas. Humanitarian efforts, we’d concluded, do not lead to progress unless they are better thought out than those registered in Haiti. Worse, well-meaning people can unwittingly weaken public health and public education at a time when others, wittingly, are seeking to undermine basic social and economic rights.

Along with many people who care about Haiti, along with its elected leaders and with the thousands of NGOs that “cover” Haiti, I participated in disaster-relief efforts, from the pragmatic ones (food, shelter, medical care) to the ones seeking to rebuild shattered infrastructure, including six major bridges, flooded roads, and drowned schools and medical facilities. I gave talks and wrote articles.

In between such efforts, I was teaching at Harvard. I usually teach medical students and doctors, but am this term teaching, with colleagues, about 200 undergraduates. I’d promised to deliver a lecture about “the colonial roots of global health,” and when preparing my talk read an article by Columbia professor Mahmood Mamdani, writing in The Nation (September 29) about “The New Humanitarian Order.” Familiar with his work about Rwanda, where we also have projects, I was interested to read his take on humanitarian efforts writ large.

Mamdani’s analysis did not surprise me, but did leave me troubled, especially after what I’d just seen in hurricane-roiled Haiti: "Rather than rights-bearing citizens," he writes, "beneficiaries of the humanitarian order are akin to the recipients of charity." (He goes on to interrogate recent claims made about Darfur by the International Criminal Court.)

Of course I thought immediately about hurricane-afflicted Haiti, worrying: Was it not also humanitarian-afflicted Haiti? Since I am one of those humanitarians, it seemed best to include Mamdani's views in my own teaching—a form of self-critique too rarely registered among NGOs and humanitarian organizations. The president of Haiti, speaking last month at the UN General Assembly, would seem to agree. This is from a recent AP news story:

Though thanking the international community for food aid and other assistance, President Rene Preval said he feared that a "paradigm of charity" would not end cycles of poverty and disaster."Once this first wave of humanitarian compassion is exhausted, we will be left as always, truly alone, to face new catastrophes and see restarted, as if in a ritual, the same exercises of mobilization," Preval said.

I recommend Mamdani's critique of the "new humanitarian order," which focuses on Darfur, to all those who seek to lessen suffering without undermining the right to self-determination and dignity. He raises several troubling questions that could guide serious reflection on foreign aid, humanitarian assistance, and respect for dignity and sovereignty.