News Round-Up (02/03/10)
It has now been three weeks since the earthquake in Haiti. The coverage of dramatic rescues is giving way to efforts to treat the injured, the struggle to obtain food, the grief of burying the dead, and plans for rebuilding. This news round-up highlights several trends in the news coverage that are relevant to the themes of ACCESS DENIED.
Our most recent post on ACCESS DENIED by Heide Castañeda responded to reports that medical flights from Haiti to Florida had ceased due to disputes over who would pay the hospital bills for evacuees. By Monday, the NYT reported that flights were resumed. Florida governor Charlie Crist claimed the dispute was over the capacity of hospitals to handle the influx of patients and was not a fight over payment.
This back and forth and the lack of clarity about why flights were really stopped points to some of the moral and political ambiguity surrounding aid to Haiti and the treatment of persons whose political status is less than straightforward. Haitians who were already in the U.S. were granted temporary protected status by the Department of Homeland Security on January 15. Read the press release here. However, the status of new arrivals is unclear. Some have been granted the status of humanitarian parole. Nonetheless, the DHS website says that Haitians “who attempt to travel to the United States after January 12, 2010 will not be eligible for TPS and will be repatriated.” With so many Americans clearly supporting relief efforts, why is a more open immigration policy still off the table?
The earthquake in Haiti continues to provoke thorny questions about sovereignty, humanitarianism, and foreign intervention (the issue of human trafficking vs. rescuing orphans is also fascinating, but will have to wait for a future post).
Are modern disasters inevitably about intervening in and reshaping places in crisis? Naomi Klein has called this tendency to remake local economies in the wake of disaster, the shock doctrine or disaster capitalism. Listen to Naomi Klein talk about Haiti:
Though it’s still unclear if the earthquake will be another example of “disaster capitalism”, there is plenty of evidence that neither the U.S. government nor the media are particularly shy about taking an interventionist approach and proscribing solutions to the “problem” that is Haiti. A recent David Brooks editorial offers a striking example—his solution involves ridding Haiti of its progress-resistant culture. Anthropologists like Samuel Martínez and the blogs Savage Minds and antroplogi.info have done great work to historicize and contextualize not just the situation in Haiti, but also the proclivity of observers like Brooks (and Samuel Huntington, whom he cites) to use culture as an explanation for poverty and inequality.
Another example of the NYT trying to diagnose and solve Haiti’s political problems was the article on Monday that proclaimed that Haiti is experiencing a “leadership void”. The article describes how President René Préval of Haiti milled around uselessly during a press conference where the American ambassador and a general spoke.
The article went on to state: “Foreign nations have sent hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance, only to find the government too weak to harness it. Virtually every symbol of this country’s political system vanished into the rubble. The seat of government has been reduced to little more than a platform beneath a towering mango tree outside a police station near the airport.”
Given the international community’s role in disaster relief, how we can distinguish between a leadership void and a follower void?
The same article claimed that Haiti “is now experiencing familiar — albeit faint — rumblings of chaos and coups.” This rumor fanning as journalism and the insinuation that a nation in the Caribbean is unfit to rule itself has a long history. Here is an image from the 1890s that expresses a similar sentiment:
Where are these rumblings coming from? The article gives us a little more to go on; it is actually repeating off the record remarks from UN and U.S. officials:
“Publicly, the international organizations here emphasize at almost every turn that they are working under Mr. Préval’s direction. Privately, United Nations and American officials said they did not believe he was up to the task.” This is scary stuff. Not whether or not Mr. Préval is up to the task of governing—that seems like a question best left to the Haitian electorate. What is scary is that it seems like international media, the US government, and the UN see part of their role as determining who should lead Haiti. There is a thin line between criticizing the government that is in power, fanning rumors, and advocating for a coup.
It seems that a bit more caution and humility is needed both in the reporting and in crafting plans for rebuilding.
There is currently no shortage of plans for rebuilding Haiti; even the NYT editorial staff put one forth. But where do the people of Haiti and their government fit into the picture?
The Friends of Haiti meeting that took place last week in Montreal made a 10-year commitment to rebuilding. The plan does not involve debt forgiveness, but it does focus on foreign investment and immediate relief efforts. Meeting participants (made up of donor nations), were acutely aware of appearing imperial. The Globe and Mail reported:
“All of the participants at Monday’s meeting stressed that Haiti must script its own reconstruction.” Quoted in the same article, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to say: “We intend to support the [Haitian] government so that this is truly a Haitian-led effort, one that responds to the aspirations and the needs of the Haitian people. It is important that we see ourselves as partners with Haiti, not patrons.”
It is encouraging that donor nations are seeking a collaborative approach. But will it be more than a PR strategy?
How do we make sense of an outpouring of generosity even as it is flanked by seriously interventionist impulses and delivered in militaristic fashion? Peter Hallward (professor of Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University and author of a book on Haiti), has written an analysis of the U.S. approach that questions the prioritizing of a military presence and security over immediate aid.
On a more positive note, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported on January 27 that donations to help Haiti have exceeded $528 million to U.S. based charities alone.
Earthquake relief efforts and rebuilding in Haiti will have long-term consequences for immigration and health. It is still unclear if whether rebuilding will be interventionist, militaristic, and an opportunity for disaster capitalism to gain a stronger foothold. There is some evidence that relief efforts could instead be collaborative, peaceful, and aimed at true poverty reduction.
Jessica Mulligan, PhD is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy at Connecticut College and a founding member of the ACCESS DENIED blog team.