What happens now? Responses to the devastation in Haiti

September 3, 2021
Editor(s): Ben Griffiths
Writer(s): Chamindu Athauda, Jade Chen, Morgan McDonagh, Stephen Kanavoutsos

On the morning of August 14th, a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake  struck the Caribbean nation of Haiti, damaging or destroying over 100,000 buildings, resulting in a devastating  death toll that has now surpassed 2000- a number that is likely to rise as the island nation’s fragile healthcare system remains overwhelmed. The catastrophic earthquake is the worst natural disaster Haiti has faced since the infamous 2010 earthquake, which the country is still recovering from after over 250,000 deaths and damages estimated at 120% of GDP. For Haiti, natural disasters are poised to become more frequent and intense with the acceleration of climate change. 

Beyond the threat of natural disasters, Haiti is a nation in economic and political turmoil, grappling with the recent assassination of President Jovenal Moise, who himself was governing by decree for over a year amid calls for his resignation and a defunct parliament. Simultaneously, escalating gang violence has pushed thousands of women and children out of key urban centers. The island ranks 170th in the world in HDI and nearly 60% of its population lives in poverty, many battling food insecurity. Moreover, the nation’s economy has been in a contraction since before the pandemic – another challenge Haiti has struggled to contain.

Therefore, beyond the immediate relief efforts lie the challenges of restabilising a nation and rebuilding the livelihoods of tens of thousands, all while devising a robust disaster management plan to address future disasters of this scale. 

Broader impacts

An adequate disaster management system is crucial for Haiti due to its susceptibility to various natural disasters such as cyclones, landslides, and earthquakes. The disastrous effects of the recent earthquake are also exacerbated by poor infrastructure and disaster management.

Accordingly, significant economic impacts, specifically within the South-West region, illustrate Haiti’s vulnerability against natural disasters – a common theme amongst the weaker disaster management systems of lower resourced countries. In particular, the destruction of the significant Les Cayes seaport presents negative economic implications for future exports and tourism, which is detrimental to Haiti’s long-term economic development. As a result, scientific modelling has predicted current monetary damages to range between $100 million to $10 billion (USD), with insured losses amounting to an overwhelming $250 million (USD).

Concurrently, from a societal perspective, limited healthcare capacity and poverty are already existing issues for developing nations, including Haiti, which has been made especially evident in light of natural disasters. In essence, the earthquake has acted as an amplifier of existing gang violence in addition to people’s discontent and impatience with Haiti’s current government and the lack of prompt aid. Given that the previous 2010 earthquake temporarily displaced 1.5 million people, an inadequate disaster management system is necessitated to prevent distressing neighbouring countries and the local healthcare system.

Furthermore, Haiti struggles with the existing impacts of COVID-19, which has undoubtedly further impacted their medical capacity to manage this earthquake. Consequently, the importance of disaster management within the presence of additional crises such as COVID-19 cannot be understated, especially in under-resourced countries like Haiti.

Adapting to future disaster risk

The crisis in Haiti highlights the ever-growing need for greater investment in effective disaster management, particularly as natural disasters increase in both severity and frequency due to the effects of climate change.

The lack of regulation or legal framework addressing disaster management exacerbates the impact of said disasters, as evidenced within the Haitian context. This is a serious impediment to effective disaster management. The lack of legal accountability for individuals or entities results in uncoordinated responses that fail to deliver vital programs such as early-warning-systems and effective resource coordination. 

With some effects of global warming now recognised as irreversible, disaster management must strike a balance between mitigation and adaptation. Hence, there is increased emphasis on the need to prepare proactively for natural disasters which are inevitable, rather than dramatic surprises. As such, it is not only critical to reduce emissions to mitigate the effects of climate change, but to also develop systems, processes, and programs which adapt to the reality of future climate-change-induced natural disasters. One way in which this can be achieved is through the combination of development and disaster management, as done in other small-island states such as Fiji, whereby building codes ensure that infrastructure is designed to account for extreme weather, and the effects of climate change are factored into the life of buildings and infrastructure. This dual approach enables responses that simultaneously address current and emerging challenges, while preserving the wellbeing of future generations.

Further examples of adaptation measures can be found in the following Australian government graph: 

Another important facet of disaster management is the development of policies with the input of community-stakeholders to ensure that solutions aren’t inequality enhancing and are compatible with specific community needs. For example, within the context of the Pacific Islands, the insights of Indigenous knowledge systems can be drawn upon to inform land management policies that aid adaptation to the effects of climate change and natural disasters. 

International responses

International aid responses to natural disasters and humanitarian crises can be analysed through a human rights lens. Implementing disaster relief strategies with a perception of beneficiaries not as objects of charity, but rights-holders that have a right to health, food, education etc is the foundation upon which equitable and sustainable aid can be achieved.

The US has committed to deploying a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) and has transported 143 medical and search and rescue staff, including members of the DART. Additionally, 6,800 pounds of medical supplies have been delivered to address food and hygiene assistance, protection needs and logistics support in the aftermath of the earthquake. There are also coordinated NGOs – such as the Red Cross – providing aid and assistance to alleviate natural disaster impacts on the health and wellbeing of the Haitian people. In addition, the UN has launched a $187.3 Million appeal for international aid to be provided to Haiti, which is primarily focused on emergency disaster relief and urgent humanitarian needs.

Applying the human rights framework to the aid relief from international sources requires an understanding of the way in which humanitarian emergencies are components and symptoms of broader human rights concerns. This is certainly the case in Haiti with issues of organized gangs controlling overland routes throughout the country and systemic corruption. A rights-based approach to aid in Haiti would strive to recognise and uphold human rights by prioritizing capacity building, participation, transparency, accountability, and non-discrimination. This ties in with the issues current aid efforts are facing in terms of equitable distribution and access for the most impacted and impoverished groups. Practical implementation of this approach requires an emphasis on investing in long-term infrastructure and support for structural reform, instead of a sole focus on immediate needs.

Previous aid endeavours for the 2010 earthquake were marred by this immediate-needs approach, with claims US expenditure in Haiti emphasised prevention of social unrest and mass migration rather than rebuilding. Studies have even highlighted the concern that humanitarian efforts did not contribute significantly to making Haiti more resilient to disasters and may even have “caused harm.” For a holistic, equitable, and effective international aid effort that learns from this past, human rights outcomes for the Haitian people must be prioritised.

The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.

Meet our authors:

Ben Griffiths

My name is Ben Griffiths and I’m currently a 4th year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) and Diploma in Languages (French) student at the University of Melbourne. I’m passionate about policy, public health, climate change, international collaboration, and finding ways to combine these interests to make a tangible impact. In my spare time I like to play guitar, learn more about the world, hang out with friends, and write articles. You can find more of my current and previous writing at Cainz, ESSA Unimelb, Melbourne Microfinance Initiative, Strive Student Health Initiative, and LSE International Development Review.

Chamindu Athauda
Jade Chen
Morgan McDonagh
Stephen Kanavoutsos

Stephen is a first-year Bachelor of Commerce student, majoring in Accounting and Finance, with an interest in macroeconomic trends and government policy. In his spare time, you can find him swimming at the pool or beach.