A number of commentators have questioned the accepted logic that disasters bring out the worst in people, directly challenging the pervasive “looters run amok” imagery often perpetuated by the media and held out by lawmakers as a rationale for military occupation. Having done relief work following Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, I have found that people are more likely to work together – even if only out of necessity – when severe hardship strikes. In fact, it is precisely the isolation and individualism of ordinary daily life that tap into our worst instincts, while the removal of these impediments can actually liberate our better qualities.
As Dustin Howes recently observed, “the vast majority of people in Haiti responded to the earthquake with the apparently just as natural of an impulse to help one another.” The New York Times has uncovered a widespread ethic of “communal rationing” in Haiti, in which “no matter what is found, or how hungry the forager, everything must be shared.” As the article explains, many Haitians “are finding ways to share. In several neighborhoods of Carrefour, a poor area closer to the epicenter, small soup kitchens have sprung up with discounted meals, subsidized by Haitians with a little extra money…. [Three women there] started cooking for their neighbors the day after the earthquake. On many mornings, they serve 100 people before 10 a.m. Smiling and proud, the women said they did not have the luxury of waiting for aid groups to reach them in their hilly neighborhood.”
This is the untold and largely unreported state of the crisis in Haiti. Amy Goodman filed a series of reports for Democracy Now! from places where relief had yet to be delivered. In Leogane, the epicenter of the quake where perhaps 90% of the city had been destroyed, Mayor Santos Alexis noted that aside from people occasionally taking food from destroyed stores, “there’s no violence really in Leogane.” Still, the mainstream relief agencies remain obsessed with security concerns, to the extent that they will drop small amounts of food from above rather than land and talk with the people on the ground. As Mayor Alexis lamented, the people “feel humiliated, because of the airplane flying and dropping some bread to them. They feel very embarrassed by that.” Haitian expatriate blogger Wadner Pierre likewise reflects on these unfortunate realities, and how they stand in contrast to baseline Haitian values:
My beloved country is one where people know how to do ‘konbit’ (put their hands together) to help their brothers and sisters. But because so many of the organizations now involved in the relief effort do not know Haiti well and do not have Haitian employees who speak the local languages, the situation may worsen… Why are American relief organizations… humiliating people by dropping food and water to them by helicopters? Would they treat American citizens in this manner?
When we consider the practice of nonviolence, one of the foundational premises is humanization, of both self and other. In Haiti, the chasm between survivors and most of the aiders prevents the discovery of a mutual humanity from which empathy may spring, making truly “humanitarian” relief efforts problematic if not impossible. A key aspect of grassroots work in the region has been to reclaim this basic humanity, providing a voice to the Haitian people themselves so that we can see, across the chasms of distance and status, that they are people with the same complexities and desires as ourselves. (A 2008 grassroots video project called “Looking Through Their Eyes” effectively captures this sense of commonality.)
Sasha Kramer, co-founder of the nonprofit organization SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods), which collaborates with local communities on “empowerment” projects, has been living and working in Haiti since 2004 and reflected on the current situation in an interview with Goodman:
[W]hen the large aid groups circulate around Port-au-Prince, they’re often in sealed vehicles with their windows up, and what this means is that they’re not able to develop good relationships with community leaders. Often they don’t speak Creole, as well, a lot of their international employees. So when a large disaster like this happens, and they need to be able to get into the neighborhoods to distribute the food, they are afraid to go in, because they don’t have the connections they would need in order to keep them safe and distribute the food in an organized manner… So it’s been this very self-perpetuating process, where, at this point, the Haitians on the ground who are ready to do something have no way to connect with the people down at the UN base who have all the materials to make a difference.
In an update on SOIL’s blog, Kramer elaborated on this critical issue that directly impacts whether life-saving aid reaches the people who need it:
I have been amazed to visit friends working with large NGOs in Port au Prince only to learn that they are forced to operate under security restrictions that prevent any kind of real connections to Haitian communities… The creation of these security zones has been like the building of a wall, a wall reinforced by language barriers and fear rather than iron rods, a wall that, unlike many of the buildings in Port au Prince, did not crumble during the earthquake. Fear, much like violence, is self perpetuating. When aid workers enter communities radiating fear it is offensive, the perceived disinterest in communicating with the poor majority is offensive, driving through impoverished communities with windows rolled up and armed security guards is offensive and, ironically, all of these extra security measures actually increase the level of risk for aid workers…
This distancing effect prevents aid from reaching desperate people and sows the seeds of conflict in an already precarious situation. Against this, grassroots groups like SOIL have made long-term commitments to (and close personal connections with) the communities they seek to empower, developing “integrated approaches to the problems of poverty, poor public health, agricultural productivity, and environmental destruction,” and “developing collaborative relationships between community organizations in Haiti and academics and activists internationally.” (Their important work is depicted in a recent video report from New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof.)
The challenge of fostering nonviolence in a disaster zone can be met through basic approaches such as this that focus on collaboration and solidarity. “We should get to know the Haitian people and make a commitment to improving their lives in the long term,” notes a recent blog focused on promoting “non-military ways of solving conflict.” In this spirit, in 2006 a Campaign for the Reduction of Violence was launched in Haiti, working toward “the peaceful transformation of conflicts, in cooperation with five key sectors: young people, women, artists, media workers and teachers.” This largely unnoticed spirit of nonviolence in Haiti, as Wadner Pierre wrote in November 2008, often emerges in time of crisis, and is intimately connected to the nonviolent struggles of people around the world:
[W]hen I think about these non-violent resistances – the Indian Resistance against Britain’s rule in Indian, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States against segregation, the Chilean Resistance against the former dictator General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the South-African Resistance against Apartheid, the Haitian resistance in the 1990s for the return of constitutional order in Haiti when former Haiti’s first democratically elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted in 1991, and the ongoing resistance in grassroots movement for Aristide’s second return from his exile in South-Africa – I have no doubt that non-violence philosophy is the best way that smart and intelligent people should and must use to overcome suffering, and to defeat any violent and oppressive system… I wrote this article/analysis to pay homage to… my adoptive father, Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a follower of Dr. King, who committed his entire life in fighting for social justice and equality for all Haitians whoever they are and wherever they are.
If Haitians are to surmount this time of profound crisis and rebuild their society, these values of social justice and conflict transformation must be given space to reemerge. The untold stories of people practicing true humanitarianism in Haiti can serve to remind us that, even in a disaster zone, those in great need can offer hope and guidance in our shared struggle to create a peaceful world. As SOIL’s Kramer concludes:
The most striking thing I have noticed while visiting the many camps throughout the city is the level of organization and ingenuity among the displaced communities. Community members stand ready to distribute food and water to their neighbors, they are prepared to provide first aid and assist with clean up efforts, all that they are lacking is the financial means to do so… Each day I am awed and humbled by the dedication and compassion of my colleagues, both Haitian and international and touched by the outpouring of love and support that we have received from around the world.
These lessons of nonviolent cooperation may well determine Haiti’s future in the days ahead.