Learning from Haiti: Seven Ways to Respond to Crises

This article was written for a progressive magazine which asked for an updated version of my earlier essay on the Haitian crisis. http://bit.ly/7pJ0iF

I decided that rather than updating it I would reorganize it to reflect some deeper dynamics I see in our responses to catastrophes in general. Although in the end the magazine felt they couldn’t use what I came up with, I want to share it with you.



By Tom Atlee

The devastating earthquake in Haiti is not the last crisis we will need to respond to. Many of us have the sense that more crises are brewing. The drama and size of the Haitian crisis have placed it — and our collective spectrum of responses — in the spotlight. This presents an opportunity to publicly reflect on how we deal with these dramatic interruptions of business-as-usual. Perhaps we can learn something that will help us prepare for — and respond more creatively to — subsequent crises. We may even be able to catalyze positive transformation that averts future catastrophes and helps call forth the world we’ve always dreamed of.

Not all responses to disaster are the same, of coure. Here I explore how they differ in motivation: What do we put our attention on? What calls us to act? What do we have in mind when we seek to help after a catastrophe?

So far, responses to the Haitian crisis have involved one or more of the following motivations. There are probably others. Those listed are not mutually exclusive. In fact we usually find more than one motivation in the same person or group. I’ve listed these motivations roughly in what I see as their increasing ability to address complex causes (except for the first, whose diverse manifestations may show up anywhere on the spectrum).

1. Strategic interest – The crisis in Haiti presents an opportunity to further what is important to us individually or collectively. This can include widely different interests, ranging from our own profit, status and power (opportunism) to a reduction in suffering and a world that works for all (strategic idealism). Three realizations characterize this motivation: (a) a crisis offers object lessons; (b) catastrophe overturns the status quo, thus setting the stage for something new; and (c) we can consciously use these realities to further changes we want to see. For example: A business may use a devastated landscapes as an excuse to relocate a poor local population and build a resort or upscale neighborhood in its place. A government may use the recovery process to support local interests that further its geopolitical goals. A charity may use images of suffering to attract more publicity and donors. A church may recruit suffering people into their religion. An activist group may use public attention on Haiti to promote their ideas about economic development or democracy. Strategic interest is almost always present to some extent and can be a powerful factor for good. But we need to stay mindful that self-righteousness, self-interest, and fixed ideologies can interfere with our ability to engage with the full realities of a situation.

2. Compassion – Crises in general and the Haitian catastrophe in particular generate images of individual and collective tragedy which impact and open our hearts. We can respond to the cries for help, taking action to ameliorate the suffering of others and to deepen our own humanity. The scope of this disaster and of the planetary response to it created a momentary sense of global community. We can find a disaster-response charity or local community organization we can support financially — or use our own networks to increase such support. If we have skills or materials to offer, we can go there ourselves, perhaps using our journey to publicize the suffering or an option for addressing it. We can counteract distraction and compassion fatigue, sustaining our attention to Haiti’s plight as a political or spiritual practice, even as others shift their attention elsewhere.

3. Prevention – The fact that earthquakes of comparable magnitude elsewhere seldom create the devastation we saw in Haiti suggests there are things that could be done to prevent future disasters of this magnitude. This is always true of every disaster and we can support analysis of the factors which could be corrected in Haiti and elsewhere to ameliorate future impacts. This could range from improved building construction to better emergency preparedness (both local and international) to ensuring nature is in a position to support human life (for example, in earthquakes, healthy forests to prevent mudslides; in hurricanes, ensuring the health of wetland buffer zones between the ocean and human communities). Often good prevention analysis reveals social, political, and economic factors that predispose a society to disaster or undermine its responsiveness, which may lead us into other motivations listed here.

4. Insight – The crisis in Haiti can help us see the intense, but usually hidden, historic, economic, political, and social dynamics that turned a natural disaster into a national catastrophe — dynamics that have parallels elsewhere in the world. We can study and publicize Haiti’s history of slavery, rebellion, and geopolitical manipulation from the times of Columbus through Jefferson and Napoleon, all the way to the last century’s U.S.-supported dictators and interventions and the debt, disruption, and slums generated by “development.” We can learn that poverty has led to the destruction of Haiti’s forests for farming and charcoal (leading to erosion and washed-out roads) and to the use of the cheap construction materials that killed so many people when buildings collapsed. We can explore the ways external intervention and internal corruption have undermined the emergence of a healthy democracy. We can wonder about the United States’ giant Haitian embassy and the militarization of relief efforts. We can marvel at the resilience, resistance, faith, and determination of so many Haitians from the times of slavery until now, in the face of daily challenges few of us in the “developed” world can imagine.

5. Justice – With these insights, we can call for different treatment of Haiti and Haitians by other nations. We can rectify the appalling history of disempowerment and exploitation and support their work in creating a more just and democratic society. We can call for forgiveness of Haiti’s international debts and restitution for the billions of dollars they were forced to pay France for the “loss of a slave colony” after their 1804 revolution. We can share knowledge about powerful community tools that enhance collective intelligence and effective self-organization. We can support healthy Cuban-Haitian relations and more opportunities for Haitian nationals in the U.S. to support their families and communities back home.

6. Sustainability – The thorough destruction of the business-as-usual economy opens up opportunities for Haiti to reverse decades of degradation and become more ecologically sound and self-reliant. We can support their development in that direction by offering training and assistance in permaculture and other restorative and sustainable forms of agriculture. We can support reforestation efforts and spread sustainable technologies such as sun boxes and rocket stoves to reduce the use of charcoal for heating. We can aid micro-lending institutions in (or working in) Haiti that support local economic development by funding Haitians’ own solutions and creativity. We can advocate cultural and technological exchanges with Cuba, which has developed tremendous innovations in sustainability and local resilience in response to the collapse of Soviet support and the continued U.S. embargo. We can make sure that our support for relief efforts increasingly goes to, or through, local Haitian community organizations rat
r than international relief organizations with no long-term staff on the ground there.

7. Social evolution – We can use the opportunity of crisis — which has aroused attention, opened hearts, and informed minds — to transform consciousness, social systems, and technologies not only in Haiti but in the United States and around the world. In particular, we can enhance the capacity of societies everywhere to use such crises to more consciously evolve their political and economic systems. Haiti has showcased the role of existing social systems in exacerbating crisis. Haiti can now be a case study for making the leap from poverty to post-industrial sustainability. We can develop “sister community” sustainability networks across national boundaries, in which know-how, visions, hearts and stories get shared. The Haitian crisis has revealed, yet again, our human tendency to react to immediate dangers and suffering while remaining unaware of, and unmoved by, the larger systemic and cultural sources of so much human suffering and environmental destruction. We can use what we learn to “move our compassion upstream” — to expand our responsiveness to include not only charity but empowerment to consciously shape ourselves, our cultures, and the social systems that shape our lives. We can see the Haitian tragedy as a canary in the coal mine, revealing the vulnerabilities we have built into our societies and the imbalances we have imposed on nature. We can use the heightened awareness produced by this and subsequent crises to change our economies and democracies. We can make economies more local and sustainable, internalizing their social and environmental costs into prices and economic accounting. We can transform democracies by reducing special-interest influence and creating political and governmental institutions that tap into and creatively use vital expertise, community wisdom, dissent, and the distributed intelligence of the whole society.

Haiti is not the beginning and it is certainly not the end of the crises we face. Our responses can not only help Haitians and improve how we respond to future crises but also ameliorate or even prevent them. Perhaps more importantly, they can contribute to the rapid and urgently needed evolution of the planetary civilization in which we are embedded and which has such a profound impact on our world and our future.

Note: You can find links to articles used as resources for this essay at

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