In the wake of a disaster such as Haiti is experiencing right now, there’s a strong impetus to help coming from people across a wide range of persuasions and perspectives. This is a good thing, of course, and yet even empathetic intentions can go awry when they foster conditions that can leave vulnerable people in a permanent state of dependency. As is often the case in the crucial matters of justice that we face, we can look to the words of Martin Luther King Jr. for guidance:
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
This is the intrinsic conundrum with focusing primarily on charity as a vehicle for justice, namely that it can serve to sustain an inherently unjust edifice, and it is why we should strive to express our compassion in terms of solidarity instead. A recent column out of Toronto rightly reflected upon the essential challenge of this task to encourage solidarity-producing efforts:
“Haitians are engaged and are mobilizing as they always have, taking the lead even as they must be overwhelmed with sorrow and loss. We must demonstrate our solidarity, and not just in the short-term, when the emergency requirements are so crucial. We can all ask ourselves what might be the best ways that we can each offer meaningful support, now and in the longer-term…. But the language of charity is not the model, for it springs from pity and is not based on a principle of equality. It ends up enhancing the generosity of the giver and – ironically – emphasizing the distance and disconnection between the giver and the receiver…. It is support and solidarity, not help, that is needed now more than ever. Our hearts are full for Haiti. Let it really mean something this time.”
A post from Benjamin Dangl on Toward Freedom is illustrative of how expressions of solidarity are relegated and marginalized in the post-disaster consciousness:
“In the aftermath of the earthquake, with much of the infrastructure and government services destroyed, Haitians have relied on each other for the relief efforts, working together to pull their neighbors, friends and loved ones from the rubble…. It is not this type of solidarity that has emerged in the wake of the crisis – and the delayed and muddled response from the international community – that most corporate media in the US have focused on. Instead, echoing the coverage and calls for militarization of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, major media outlets talk about the looting, and need for security to protect private property.”
Indeed, drawing upon parallels from recent crises such as Hurricane Katrina, we begin to appreciate the ways in which disasters can continue to evolve and enlarge the scope of oppression over the long term, years after the large portion of aid operations have been concluded and the world’s attention has moved on to new concerns. In New Orleans, grassroots activists at Common Ground Relief and elsewhere explicitly took up the mantra of “solidarity, not charity” to express the view that any relief efforts must be about helping people to help themselves, or they would merely be another form of disempowerment, even if well-intentioned.
On one side of the “disaster relief” coin, we’re likely to find mercenaries and militarists who sense an opening to profit from the crisis by privatizing and/or pacifying the populace. In some instances, these companion trends will exist in the same entity, such as with the company formerly known as Blackwater (and other well-known contracting firms that need no introduction), which do double duty as part of the military-industrial complex. As many have exhaustively argued, disasters can be highly profitable both monetarily and militarily – so much so that certain forces will foment, exacerbate and perpetuate them to suit their machinations.
On the other side are the purportedly well-meaning organizations that comprise part of what has been called the “disaster-industrial complex.” Among these are entities like the Red Cross that see their coffers drastically inflate during times of acute crisis, but don’t always see fit to disburse the bulk of the resources received to the people who need it most. Such mainstream charities often partner with multinational corporations to create disturbing synergies like giving out Wal-Mart gift cards or feeding contractors rather than hungry locals. Even in cases where these entities perform charitable works in good conscience, they often find themselves in the position of perpetuating a marginal existence for the “victims” rather than addressing the root causes of impoverishment and imposed vulnerability that made the disaster possible in the first instance.
Again, the parallels with post-Katrina New Orleans are instructive. Blogger Jordan Flaherty has an important post circulating right now that lays out some of the critical implications:
“Author Naomi Klein reported that within 24 hours of the earthquake, the influential right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation was already seeking to use the disaster as an attempt at further privatization of the country’s economy. The Heritage Foundation released similar recommendations in the days after Katrina, calling for ‘solutions’ such as school vouchers. Our Katrina experience has taught us to be suspicious of the Red Cross and other large and bureaucratic aid agencies that function without and means of community accountability. In New Orleans, we’ve seen literally tens of billions of dollars in aid pledged in the years since Katrina, but only a small fraction of that has made it to those most in need.
“A recent statement signed by six human rights organizations brings these concerns to the discussion of Haiti relief. ‘There is no doubt that Haiti’s hungry, thirsty, injured, and sick urgently need all the assistance the international community can provide, but it is critical that the underlying goal of improving human rights drives the distribution of every dollar of aid given to Haiti,’ said Loune Viaud, Director of Strategic Planning and Operations at Partners in Health/Zanmi Lasante, one of the drafters of the letter. ‘The only way to avoid escalation of this crisis is for international aid to take a long-term view and strive to rebuild a stronger Haiti – one that includes a government that can ensure the basic human rights of all Haitians and a nation that is empowered to demand those rights.'”
This is the key for any true relief effort: empowerment. Undoubtedly in the near term, acute crisis intervention is the crucial element. But soon after will come the long-term crisis felt by multitudes of displaced people with shattered lives. A disaster of the magnitude of Katrina or the Haiti Earthquake will affect people emotionally and physiologically for years, perhaps decades. Yet, even crippled by catastrophe, the single best entity to rebuild and reinvigorate a disaster zone is the impacted population itself. In New Orleans, this means the people fighting for the right to return to their homes, to prevent the demolition of habitable public housing, and to keep their neighborhoods from being decimated by shady developers using legal chicanery designed to wrest away homesteads. It means real people seeking to take back not only what they lost in the storm, but also what had been taken from them in myriad forms of oppression before disaster struck.
In New Orleans, thousands of grassroots activists have been to the city since Katrina. The majority have sought to practice – albeit imperfectly, at times – this spirit of solidarity. The aim is to help people develop the tools necessary to decide how to rebuild their own lives and communities. It also includes the struggle to preserve meaningful political opportunities for people to be able to influence the governance systems and decision-making structures that hold sway. And it necessitates economic self-reliance in which people can produce and share the resources necessary for their livelihoods without having to fully resort to outside profiteers.
What might solidarity-focused actions of this sort look like in Haiti? Once the rescue operations have ceased, there will be a deeper reality that sets in as what are essentially occupying forces remain behind, and as already disempowered Haitians are confronted with being further relegated as ostensible outsiders in their own land. Whatever plans are made to rebuild and restructure the edifice of Haiti, it must from the outset be led by Haitians themselves. There have been few Haitian voices present in that discussion thus far, and this is the first thing that needs to change. As solidarity activists, we should support the emergence of those voices as much as possible, as Bill Quigley suggested, by first allowing Haitians to help one another:
“Allow all Haitians in the US to work. The number one source of money for poor people in Haiti is the money sent from family and workers in the US back home. Haitians will continue to help themselves if given a chance. Haitians in the US will continue to help when the world community moves on to other problems.”
Contrast this sense of Haitian self-help with the remarks of former President George W. Bush, who reinforced the “imposed dependency” approach by focusing on remote aid and a top-down infrastructure of relief led by external actors:
“The challenges down there are immense, but there’s a lot of devoted people leading the relief effort, from government personnel who deployed into the disaster zone to the faith-based groups that have made Haiti a calling. The most effective way for Americans to help the people of Haiti is to contribute money. That money will go to organizations on the ground and will be – who will be able to effectively spend it. I know a lot of people want to send blankets or water – just send your cash. One of the things that the President and I will do is to make sure your money is spent wisely.”
This is (at best) charity, not solidarity, at it won’t get to the root of the problem. A better initial approach is suggested by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which focuses on “economic human rights” through canceling the nation’s oppressive debt, promoting women’s rights and supporting Haitian-based projects focused on long-term relief. In this spirit, the Pittsburgh chapter of the Thomas Merton Society has set up a Haiti Solidarity Committee that “educates and agitates for justice in Haiti, supports local Haitians, and ships medical supplies and other necessities to Haiti. We aim to create a broader awareness of Haiti and the Haitian people.” For those focused on viable short-term relief options that also have long-term community-building aims, Artists for Peace and Justice are sending 100 percent of donations received directly to Father Rick Frechette, who “runs two pediatric hospitals, street schools in the slums, [and] an abandoned children’s home” outside of Port-au-Prince, and is utilizing the resources “to help dig people out of the collapsed hospital and schools, to buy emergency medicine, to supply badly needed water and food, to help fly in doctors for the wounded children, and so much more.”
The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, which was formed in 2004 as an acknowledgment of the ongoing “emergency” there, works specifically to support “Haiti’s grassroots movement – including labor unions, women’s groups, educators and human rights activists, support committees for prisoners and agricultural cooperatives” – by funneling any aid received directly to these entities. The Batey Relief Alliance likewise partners with grassroots organizations in Haiti, stating that their “short-term objective is to relieve immediate suffering in the surrounding Port-au-Prince areas. Their long-term plan, however, is to repair basic services, deliver sustainable healthcare, and provide training and economic opportunities to women…” Another group with both short- and long-term relief efforts on tap is the nonprofit environmental organization SOIL, which has been working in Haiti to foster a “liberation ecology” that is “dedicated to protecting soil resources, empowering communities and transforming wastes into resources in Haiti. We believe that the path to sustainability is through transformation, of both disempowered people and discarded materials, turning apathy and pollution into valuable resources. SOIL promotes integrated approaches to the problems of poverty, poor public health, agricultural productivity, and environmental destruction. We attempt to nurture collective creativity through developing collaborative relationships between community organizations in Haiti and academics and activists internationally. Empowering communities, building the soil, nourishing the grassroots.”
All of these are small but crucial steps for a country that has experienced unfathomable devastation. It is indeed a challenge for the well meaning among us to know how to help in an effective and worthwhile manner. By focusing on people and entities working at the grassroots level with long-term perspectives, we can assist Haitians in creating structures through which they may strive to help themselves and chart their own course of action going forward. Indeed, this is the best form of support we can offer during times of both obvious and subtle crisis alike. It is, in short, an expression of solidarity that reflects the best sense of our common humanity.