The story about the Haiti earthquake is pretty clear: A horrible thing has happened to a lot of people. They need help, and the world is moving to help them.
True enough, as far as it goes. But there is more to it than that, almost overwhelmingly more. It seems that community, politics, violence, history, economics, geopolitics, opportunism, and unexamined assumptions are all playing big roles, as well as our inability to deal with self-organization and invisible catastrophes.
The widespread damage and death caused by the recent earthquake (and its many large aftershocks) are as much about poverty as about the violence of the quake. Flimsy construction and lack of resources set the Haitians up for collapsing buildings and the slow relief response. But their poverty came from a long history of exploitation and intervention, with the US and France playing key roles.
With the discovery of the “New World” 500 years ago, slavery came to Haiti, enslaving first the local Indians, then Africans. (It continues today; a house worker or sex slave can be purchased in Haiti for less than $100; see below.) Revolutions, betrayals, invasions, dictators, stillborn democracy, and then the hidden oppressions of international trade (which wrecked Haiti’s self-sufficient rice economy), debt and sweatshops, finally topped today by a controversial (some say murderous) UN occupation, combined with deforestation (bringing floods, erosion, washed-out roads, desertification, pollution)… It has left Haitians little to work with.
So why does the US have its 5th largest embassy in one of the world’s smallest and poorest nations? Some say offshore oil; some say rollback of left-wing movements in Latin America. I don’t know, but it IS odd.
Will corporations move in to take advantage of the devastation, building resorts on newly exclusive beaches that used to be fishing villages, hiring displaced villagers as construction workers and landscapers, as they did after the 2007 tsunami disaster hit Thailand? Followers of Naomi Klein’s “disaster capitalism” narrative believe so. At a more basic level, notice whether it is Haitians or Americans (if anyone) who get the contracts to “rebuild Haiti”.
Close examination shows just how necessary and complicated preparing the Port au Prince airport was, given its small size and damaged control tower. Nevertheless, people around the world are wondering why the US’s first response was to bring in the US military to take over the airport, getting authority from Haiti’s government after the fact. Was their turning away aid planes to make way for more military planes and US citizen evacuations — and letting relief supplies stack up on the tarmac while people were dying less than a mile away — part of the general confusion and complexity of the task, or part of a larger plan (some believe to prevent former President Aristide’s return?) or just part of an effort to take control because they feared chaos and didn’t know how to facilitate self-organization of the massive relief efforts coming from all directions? Or are all such concerns just examples of anti-American bias and paranoia about US intention when the US military was doing a commendable job under trying circumstances?
The more I read about the events in Haiti from different perspectives, the more clear the depth of its complexity becomes. Oversimplified narratives compete in a context of thousands of disconnected facts, giant numbers, historic ghosts, and a rapidly changing scene on the ground. (Having worked on this report for four days and needing to constantly change it, some of it may not be useful a week from now — though I’ve tried to keep most of it relatively timeless.)
Much of this complexity arises from my reading different perspectives, from mainstream US media to Al Jazeera, from friends of friends on the ground to charity appeals from international aid organizations, from the Heritage Foundation to the World Socialists. All these offer pieces of a puzzle far too complex for any one story to embrace — a puzzle that is, itself, flowing, more like a waterfall or a tsunami than a jigsaw. All narratives are potentially thought-terminating cliches — but without them, I can’t seem to land anywhere. My mind and heart are like a relief plane lacking clearance to land.
A few thoughts arise from the tsunami of news and views:
1. The Haitians are showing remarkable resilience and order in the face of unbelievable challenges, although that may be less true as people become more desperate. Despite some incidents of violence and looting so far, most reports speak of remarkable calm and mutual support among the poor population. We could help provide both the immediate and long-term support they need — and learn much about community from them as we do.
2. The catastrophe in Haiti has been caused at least as much by poverty, oppression, and deforestation as by natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. We could choose to support them in reversing that trajectory, using 21st century tools like permaculture, reforestation and microlending that support local community and ecological resilience.
3. The US, France and global “development” bureaucracies have played major historical roles in undermining Haitian independence and success. We could choose to play the opposite role from here on out, forgiving debts, increasing their economic self-reliance, and ceasing our partisan intervention in their efforts at democracy.
4. Disaster support has largely been provided through organizations (from the Red Cross to the US military) whose mission is not to empower Haitians. In some cases they even receive financial and public relations benefits far beyond the benefits they provide on the ground. In our charitable responses, we could support Haiti’s ultimate success by supporting established grassroots organizations working to empower local Haitian communities and resist further intervention by outside forces working to exploit or repress Haitian self-reliance.
5. The disaster relief situation is a self-organizing chaos which the US military is defining first as a security problem and attempting to establish order through management, control, and force rather than through establishing information and communication systems and supporting indigenous networks through which the evolving relief effort could manage itself. This is especially dicey in the absence of effective legitimate authority in Haiti (the current government is not popular), combined with the simultaneous involvement of many nations and agencies. (Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez noted that if every country unilaterally sent in its military like the US did, it would create a very volatile situation, indeed.) We could advocate more preparedness and responses based on facilitated self-organization, as researched by Louise Comfort and others (see below).
6. Finally, and I believe MOST IMPORTANT: The global response to the tragedy in Haiti is an excellent example of our readiness to respond to challenges that present obvious immediate personal suffering or danger and our inability to respond to challenges whose dangers are more diffuse in space or time, or are invisible to our immediate senses — even when they have potential for far greater disaster.
* We have trouble thinking historically or systemically or responding to what we don’t personally sense (like radiation, most toxics, and events not covered by the mainstream news).
* We have trouble living in a deep-time present, aware of the impacts and stories of the past and of the realistic possibilities for significantly positive or negative futures.
* We are easily manipulated by imagery and language that interpret events in oversimplified, biased ways designed to shape the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening, what’s real, and what’s possible.
* We have trouble seeing our own roles in what’s happening — both actual and potential, in the past, present and future — and this limits our ability to co-create and co-evolve.
These limitations are largely built into our biological and social make-up. However, we have the capacity to consciously alter every one of these, as individuals and as social movements. First we have to acknowledge them as limitations and decide to focus attention on them at least in addition to, if not instead of, reacting in our traditional “address the immediate suffering” mode. (To some extent our readiness to do this will be shown by who is involved in Haiti — and how — once the earthquake-generated disaster subsides into the longer-term poverty-generated one.)
I believe addressing our blindness to long-term less-visible dangers is the most important lesson of all because behind every shortcoming listed above — as well as behind most future disasters — are systems and cultures that make them virtually inevitable. And what will support every positive possibility listed above will be changes in our social systems — especially political, governance, and economic systems — and changes in the cultural stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are doing here on Earth.
Where will we put our life energy, our resources, our time and attention? What role do we want to have in the challenges of our time and the evolution of our civilization? How ready are we to expand our thinking and responses into wider, wiser vistas? How do we wish future generations to remember us?
Haiti’s crisis is only one step on a long journey we will be traveling together during this new century. Let us build a better path as we walk it.
Below are eye-opening references to delve deeper into the meaning of the Haitian crisis, followed by organizations you might support as part of your response.
SELECTED LINKS (I found these eye-opening)
(where a link may be broken in email I’ve provided a short “bitly” link to take you to the same page, while leaving the original for reference)
Note also that I often used Wikipedia and its related links — as well as Google — as starting places in my research when I had questions about what I was reading in articles that had been sent to me.
http://www.waccobb.net/forums/general-community/62520-demand-real-aid-haiti.html (or http://bit.ly/4S7F9f ) – critiques the early use of US military resources in Haiti and suggests how they could be better used. On the other hand, http://northshorejournal.org/but-people-are-dying-thoughts-on-the-haitian-dis… (or http://bit.ly/6fiHZF ) describes the complexity of dealing with a disaster of this magnitude, in general, and
http://northshorejournal.org/situation-at-port-au-prince-airport-improving (or http://bit.ly/6PVn0J ) describes the challenges of getting the Port au Prince airport functioning to handle the increased traffic (from three flights a day to hundreds).
For some not-widely-known history, see
and for the decisive role Haiti played in US history, see
For on-the-ground conditions in Port au Prince communities (inspiring and frustrating), see
(or http://bit.ly/8JVlPi )
(or http://bit.ly/5T7YkY )
(or http://bit.ly/7DFFHt )
Al Jazeera coverage (good for updates)
For research on self-organized responses to catastrophes, see
and other publications of Louise Comfort’s Center for Disaster Management at the University of Pittsburgh
(or http://bit.ly/8DODis )
as well as this excellent reframing of disasters with a focus on prevention and learning from experience
(or http://bit.ly/5Y4ilT )
(If we responded to all disasters in this way, it would generate a progressive, collectively intelligent transformation of social systems.)
Some background on poverty in Haiti
(or http://bit.ly/8L0I6L )
A fascinating permaculture project for Haiti
(or http://bit.ly/50VK07 )
US interventions in Haiti in the last decade
(or http://bit.ly/7GzfLv )
Deforestation in Haiti
(or http://bit.ly/8HEnLp )
(or http://bit.ly/6r0LYr )
Solutions to deforestation
(or http://bit.ly/92YmUY )
What the US can and should do
From the Left
(or http://bit.ly/6tWHso )
From the Right
(or http://bit.ly/7HeR2M )
Haiti’s potential role in US geopolitics
(or http://bit.ly/5g5V1v )
Slave market in Haiti
(or http://bit.ly/6C5mHQ )
A video that chronicles apparent neglect and abuse by UN troops in Haiti
://globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=16998 (or http://bit.ly/606gJB )
Disaster capitalism and community resistance in Thailand
(or http://bit.ly/4GnY2m )
A call for investigation of the incompetence, public relations, and misuse of charitable donations in the Haiti crisis
If you wish to contribute to the Co-Intelligence Institute, go to
If you wish to contribute to Haiti relief, here are some dependable organizations recommended by people on this email list:
Four small groups especially working at the grassroots to empower poor Haitians:
* Lambi Fund of Haiti –
Larger groups who have experience and local relief infrastructure in place in Haiti:
* Partners in Health –
* Oxfam America –
* Doctors Without Borders –
* CARE –
* Haiti Emergency Relief Fund –
* Save the Children –
* UNICEF –
* World Vision –
(The Red Cross is not on this list. See http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/01/19-9 )
Grantmakers without Borders http://www.gwob.net offers this set of recommendations for disaster relief donors: “Criteria for Disaster Response”
1. First and foremost, provide unrestricted general funding to allow resources to go where they are most urgently needed.
2. Give only to those organizations with an existing presence in the region and a broad familiarity with local conditions, customs and politics. Avoid well-meaning but inexperienced organizations.
3. Give only to organizations that engage local community members in all aspects of disaster response and recovery. Avoid top-down responders.
4. Prioritize organizations with a strong focus on gender and the ways in which women are differently impacted during and after an emergency.
5. Prioritize organizations that link emergency response with recovery and long-term rehabilitation and that build local capacities.
And if you’d like to invest in a microlending alternative bank in Haiti, see