Inconvenient Truth: Hurricane Matthew & Cholera


Hurricane Matthew made landfall at Les Anglais, Haiti on the 4 October 2016. The category 4 storm brought 150mph winds, sheets of rain and ocean surges that cascaded furiously upon the Haitian shoreline. The areas affected are wounded; homes, businesses, churches and centres of city life have been flooded. Death tolls currently range from 300-1000, and many thousands more have been forced from their homes.

This past week, however, Haitians did not powerlessly watch Matthew wash through their land, waiting for foreign aid to appear. They have banded together – families, neighbours, cooperatives, work societies, community, solidarity and diaspora groups – to begin the clean-up, and get the affected regions back on their feet. Yet, once again, the media and the “international community” have chosen to present Haitians as passive, fatalistic, superstitious and cavalier (yes, all at once!).

Although this is a time of great sadness, we must also be vigilant. Over the course of the past week, the UN, aided by many major charities and NGOs, has done all it can to claim, with a snake-tongued audacity, that Hurricane Matthew represents the “largest humanitarian event” to hit Haiti since the 2010 earthquake.

Lest we forget that six years ago the country experienced another major disaster. It had nothing to do with the earthquake or in fact any other natural phenomenon. It was a manmade epidemic; a disease that had never before been introduced to Haiti. The disaster was cholera, spread by UN Nepalese peacekeepers dumping infected faeces into a river. Their actions killed close to ten thousand Haitians and sickened tens of thousands more.

Yet almost as soon as the news began to break, aid agencies started associating the aftermath of the 2010 seismic disaster with the spread of cholera. Action Aid UK, for example, tweeted for help to tackle the disease as they had done “after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.”

The casual linking of cholera as a direct consequence of natural disaster, not manmade incompetence, should set alarm bells ringing. The UN has done all it can to shirk responsibility for the outbreak, although in August this year, after many years of advocacy and protest by Haitian civil society, it reluctantly acknowledged that it did indeed play a role in spreading the disease.

It now, however, seems that the arrival of Hurricane Matthew is helping them bury this inconvenient truth and avoid accountability for their actions. As international organisations warn that the hurricane will undoubtedly worsen the spread of cholera, in the media the Guardian, Sky News, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and others have all covered the cholera story while failing to mention the UN’s fundamental role in creating the epidemic in the first place.

We must ensure that this does not continue.

And here we go again…

After the 2010 earthquake, very few donations pledged ever actually reached Haiti. The Red Cross notoriously built just six homes with close to half a billion dollars in donations. For the most part, money that did arrive went to relief projects resourced and staffed almost entirely by foreigners. Spearheaded by experts in disaster capitalism, organisations seldom planned for long-term development. Worse still, rarely did they collaborate or engage with Haitian civil society organisations to ensure that they were involving local actors and encouraging the best use of expertise on the ground.

And it seems that with Hurricane Matthew we are still making the same mistakes. Just this week, the UK announced a £5m care package to Haiti. The government will, once again, funnel payments through international bodies and NGOs rather than engage with local communities in Haiti.

Will we ever learn?

Solidarity, not charity

So what can we do in the UK to help? It is worth repeating, as we did recently, Mark Schuller’s advice to “support the initiatives led by Haitian people and groups” and demand accountability, development and disaster preparedness from NGOs involved in Haiti

If you would like to donate, here are some recommendations:

  • Do your own research and give wisely
  • Support groups that engage with Haitians at every level
  • Better still, give money directly to Haitian run initiatives
  • You can find a helpful list of some of the groups the Haiti Support Group has collaborated with in the past here

Haitian grassroots organisations know what is needed in Haiti to drive long-term development and prevent damage in future extreme weather conditions.  We need to start listening to them.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.