Theory Teacher's Blog

The Tragedy of Haiti’s Earthquake: What Should I Do?

One of the questions I’ve noticed a lot of people raising on FaceBook and various list-seves is where to donate money to help people in Haiti who have suffered so terribly from the recent earthquate. OxfamRed Cross… Doctors without BordersPartners in HealthMadreHaiti Action??? It’s a hard decision, and although the urgency of the situation seems to demand that one act quickly, I think it is also wise to pause and act thoughtfully. As the theorist Slavoj Zizek famously and cleverly remarked about the global financial crisis in the October 10, 2008 issue of the London Review of Books, “don’t just do something — talk!”

For instance, the new fad in the age of iPhones and Twitter is to donate money by cell phone, and this would seem to be fast, but apparently, cell phone donations have to go through one’s cell phone provider, and hence the money takes almost 90 days to get to its destination. For large organizations, such as the Red Cross, the timing of donations actually doesn’t matter that much, because of the way their annual budgets work. They use their financial reserves to respond immediately to disasters, and any donations given at the time might actually be put in savings in preparation for a future disaster or simply used to settle accounts at the end of the fiscal year. (This, of course, frustrates people who only want to donate to specific causes and want to know exactly what their money is going to.) So, for large organizations, while it is important for them to act quickly to address the problems on the ground as soon as possible, it is not so important that we the donors act quite so quickly. So, we have time to time to heed Zizek’s words and talk this out before acting.

Most organizations would prefer to devote money to minimize the effects of disasters before they happen by building good infrastructure rather than responding to the disasters after they happen. Thanks to one of my students who wrote a wonderful research paper about the psychology of philanthropy, I learned that relief organizations are painfully aware that preventative efforts do not raise much money compared to response efforts. They want to behave one way, but the psychology of their donors directs them another way. Hence, the history and circumstances of a particular location can leave certain populations especially vulnerable. I won’t dwell on Haiti’s long and complicated history here, but in yesterday’s NY Times [here], the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of Mountains beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder intelligently alerts us to why Haiti has been so vulnerable and which disaster relief organizations have been more helpful than others.

He makes a point that I’ve also heard made elsewhere — that organizations that are already on the ground in Haiti and have been for a long time will probably be able to do a better job than a foreign organization coming in. They already know the people there and their circumstances. One such organization is Partners in Health, which has been actively working with communities and governtal agencies in Haiti for a long time and has an excellent reputation.

That said, I must admit that I do not know much about disaster relief organizations or the ethics of aid. I hope anyone reading this blog will volunteer some information and insight. But I do know that aid doesn’t always do what it purports to do.

In fact, sometimes relief organizations don’t always act in the best interests of the local people. Many people criticized George W. Bush for not responding fast enough or strongly enough to the Katrina hurricane or the Asian tsunami,  but his lack of haste and effort was not the only problem. Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine (published in 2007) has revealed that the U.S. government (both Democrats and Republicans) has used natural disasters and relief efforts as tools for re-engineering entire communities to make them more accessible to American venture capital and corporate interests. One might argue against Klein that such development projects and private investment are ultimately good for the people of that location, but often such projects benefit only the wealthy minority of that community. In any case, one hopes that aid and relief will be knowledgeable and considerate of all the stakeholders there. And considering that the United States’s historical relationship to Haiti has been one of hostility, invasion, and constant meddling that has undermined the Haitian people’s own political will, it is probably worth keeping our eyes open to whether the United States will now finally do the right thing by Haiti.

In light of these concerns, I appreciated that Barack Obama said [here] that he plans to “partner” with not just with the Haitian people but also with the Haitian government (since whenever politicians say they only will “help” “the people” what they often really mean is a specific political faction that is friendly to their own interests.) The word “partner” is significant, for sure, and gives me some hope, but I am sceptical, as I always am.

So, what to do? I suspect I will donate to Partners in Health, but  before I do that, as Zizek says, first we should talk. And I would also add to Zizek’s recommendation, we should keep our eyes open. As the philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues in his book State of Exception (published in Italian in 2003 and translated into English in 2005) and as Klein demonstrates in Shock Doctrine, emergencies have a way of blinding people to ethical action. The emergency situation might lead us to believe that a less ethical option is so expedient, necessary, and/or urgent that it can’t even be discussed.


January 15, 2010 - Posted by | international aid

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