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Regarding post-hurricane aid to Haiti

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This letter is in response to the Oct. 12 e-mail sent by Larry Moneta to the Duke student body regarding ways to contribute to Hurricane Matthew relief efforts, in which he encouraged students to donate to “legitimate aid organizations” and included a link suggesting such organizations, including the American Red Cross.

We write to Moneta as students of the Limits of Good Intentions class in the Humanitarian Challenges FOCUS Cluster, taught by Laura Wagner. In class, we have been exploring the complex implications of humanitarian aid, particularly focusing on aid to Haiti. This is a topic we are passionate about and we appreciate his drawing Duke students’ attention to the tragic effects of Hurricane Matthew; however, we would like to propose more effective ways through which Duke as a community can respond both compassionately and ethically, as well as suggest more meaningful ways to contribute to post-hurricane relief and recovery. In reflecting critically on and thoroughly considering the consequences the post-disaster aid that the Duke community extends, we not only grow as intellectuals, but also promote the “determination and application” and appreciation for human difference advocated in Duke University’s Mission Statement.

In 1804, Haiti gained independence through a slave revolution, and since then has fought for the rest of the world to view it as a legitimate state. The United States did not recognize Haiti as a sovereign nation until the U.S. was no longer economically dependent on the labor of enslaved people. On top of that, Haiti was forced to pay France an indemnity equivalent to more than $20 billion after the revolution. In short, Haiti’s struggle for sovereignty was threatened from its birth by international resistance to Black independence and continues to be threatened today by NGOs and other international organizations that weaken the Haitian state and foster the idea that Haitian “progress” cannot be initiated by Haitians themselves.

The 2010 Haiti earthquake sparked a worldwide humanitarian response, with relief spending totaling an estimate of $2.43 billion (of more than $13 billion initially pledged by international donors). According to journalist Jonathan Katz, despite this pouring of donations to the UN and NGOs, approximately 93 percent never reached the intended recipients. Much was spent on logistics including supplies and personnel; large sums of supposed “aid” never left the donor states at all. Only a reported 1 percent went to the Haitian government. A joint report by Propublica and NPR in 2015 revealed that despite receiving almost half a billion dollars in aid donations claiming to transform entire neighborhoods, the American Red Cross (ARC) only spent approximately 17 percent of it in Haiti and built only six houses since the earthquake. Haitians are, understandably, distrustful of the ARC.

While Haiti struggled in the aftermath of the earthquake, they were struck by the country’s first cholera epidemic. Despite multiple investigations that prove that UN peacekeepers imported the disease, the UN repeatedly denied involvement. It was only 6 years later, this August, that the UN finally acknowledged that it “played a role” for the epidemic, and only this week, on Monday, that the UN agreed to pay damages to Haitian cholera victims.

Our aim in citing these incidents is not to criticize international organizations, but rather to assert while prominent organizations may have good intentions, they are imperfect, not necessarily efficient in their work, and can negatively impact the country. We echo and support the compelling argument Krystelle Rocourt made in her Oct. 21 Chronicle guest column, and we recommend that everyone review the list of local organizations she suggests. Unlike large, bureaucratic organizations like the American Red Cross, these initiatives create the most direct, sustainable change. This is because they are Haitian-run or largely Haitian staffed, financially transparent, “bottom-up,” and exhibit true solidarity with their partner communities. Instead of simply “giving to the needy,” these organizations promote Haitian autonomy.

Humanitarian work is not finished as soon as money is sent. We would like to remind the Duke community that organizations must be accountable to the people they intend to help, and transparent about how donations are used. For example, if organizations buy and distribute free clothing, they will adversely impact the lives of Haitians who sell clothing for a living, and thus add to the cycle of dependency. When giving money, we must consider both long term and short term effects of our donations.

Advocacy, as well as monetary donation, is an important part of effective humanitarian assistance. For example, Partners in Health has been advocating for the distribution of the cholera vaccine in Haiti. With the increase in cholera after Hurricane Matthew, this work is even more important. We recommend that students push for the distribution of the vaccine as well as to continue to hold the UN accountable for introducing cholera to Haiti. Advocacy is key because long-term change requires action on a large scale, and action on a large scale requires that the relatively privileged, like us, be truly aware.

Please, think twice before making donations. Look into the background of the organizations. Think critically on the short term and long term impacts their actions have on local governments and local communities. Find out where your money is going. Talk to your friends and spread the message to ensure that Haiti gets the help it deserves.


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