You could be forgiven for not finding any crumb of hope amidst the rubble of post-Hurricane Matthew devastated Haiti where, according to the BBC, it is already believed over 900 people have perished as a result and the Haitian government claims 350,000 are in need of aid.
A country’s people known more for their misfortunes than anything else must somehow first survive the immediate aftermath of the hurricane and slowly piece their lives back together again, rebuilding both their dwellings and country. However, if planned out properly, the international humanitarian response to Haiti’s plight may eventually transform ordinary Haitians’ fortunes and provide opportunities for several major participants in the process, among them the United Nations’ (UN) Secretary-General-elect António Guterres.
For Guterres, succeeding Ban Ki Moon in December, organising the UN’s humanitarian response may allow him to make his mark as the new UN Secretary-General. His decade-long experience as UN High Commissioner for Refugees makes him ideally placed to both strategize the UN’s aid assistance to Haiti effectively, and to mark a shift in tone at the UN to a greater emphasis on aid response. Guterres will come to the helm of an increasingly beleaguered organisation, enmired in the Syrian crisis which it has wholly failed to resolve and (partly due to Syria) embroiled by tensions in the UN Security Council, particularly between Russia and the USA. As a Modern History student, I believe the parallels with the structural problems and inaction of the 1930s League of Nations, effectively the prototype UN, are all too apparent.
Ban Ki Moon’s authority as UN Secretary-General has seeped away as the UN’s reputation has gradually subsided in recent years. If Guterres’s UN takes strong action in the wake of Hurricane Matthew’s destruction of much of Haiti, he can restore lost authority to his office and revitalise the flagging UN.
Closer to home, the humanitarian effort to come provides opportunity to the relatively new UK International Development Secretary, Priti Patel. Eyebrows were raised by some when Prime Minister Theresa May appointed her to the post, not least because Patel has previously supported abolishing the position she now holds!
Patel has long accused the Department she now heads of wastage of its budget and has asserted her goal of reforming it ‘so that it delivers not just for the world’s poorest, but British taxpayers as well’. By ensuring the UK plays a major part in a long-term development plan for Haiti, she can thus achieve her essential objectives of streamlining aid and making it more trade-oriented.
The amount of emergency aid required for likely future humanitarian disasters in Haiti, which is positioned on an earthquake faultline and in a known hurricane area, could be lessened by a long-term development plan. This could include major investment in, for example, helping construct more durable buildings. Rather than simply providing money to the Haitian government, notorious for corruption and fraud, to do what they will with it, Patel could directly finance British construction labourers to go to Haiti and help rebuild the country, fulfilling her British trade and jobs creation aim.
Similarly, as a whole, the Conservative government of Theresa May can grasp the chance afforded by Haiti’s desperate situation to actually put words into action. It has been widely noted that since becoming Prime Minister, May’s keynote speeches outlining her government vision have strongly emphasized tackling social injustice, inequality and poverty in society.
However in my view it is strongly debatable whether policies so far, such as expanding grammar schools and increasing tuition fees, reflect her rhetoric about confronting inequality and poverty. Being at the forefront of aid efforts to Haiti can see her speeches on such issues translated into action and protect her government from the accusation of the proverb ‘fine words butter no parsnips’ – that words amount to nothing until acted upon!
The wider international community owes Haiti a strong, coordinated humanitarian response for two reasons. The first, historical: the country was the first slave territory to successfully rise up against imperial rule and become independent in 1804, beginning the gradual, but eventual, abolition of slavery across the world. Secondly, although the emergency aid efforts undoubtedly saved lives, the international community’s response to the even more disastrous earthquake in 2010, said to have claimed around 160,000 lives according to a study by the University of Michigan, was clumsy.
The mass of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and national actors may have invested large sums of money, but they were invested haphazardly, leading to the shanty towns destroyed by the quake merely springing up again and no improvement in basic infrastructure. UN military actually brought cholera to Haiti, sparking an epidemic which is feared will now worsen due to the floodwaters of Hurricane Matthew overwhelming the basic sanitation system.
Therefore, the international community simply must get the response to the hurricane’s destruction right, not least to right the wrongs of 2010. The challenge of transforming Haiti is great – it is a country wracked by cholera, corruption, crime, poverty, exploitation (sweatshops form a major part of the Haitian economy) and the damage caused by both Hurricane Matthew and the 2010 earthquake. Producing an effective emergency aid and long-term development strategy can both address these issues and provide an opportunity for Guterres, Patel and May’s government to implement their aims.