A decade ago, I traveled to Haiti in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake that devastated the capital to provide trauma counseling. It was evident that a history of systemic inequalities had leveled the country as much as the historic earthquake. About 250,000 people died and 300,000 people were injured. Over 1.5 million people were displaced. The level of trauma from fear, loss, and grief was incalculable. Money was donated. U.S. citizens alone gave about $1.3 billion. But Haiti was still totally unprepared for the outbreak of cholera that followed the earthquake 10 months later and resulted in 10,000 deaths.
That experience made me aware the help had to be better tied to the long-term work of recovery and not just the short-term effort of response.
Eleven years later, I find myself thinking about Haiti again as the country tries to find its way back after a devastating series of tragedies.
On Aug. 14, while still reeling from the assassination in July of President Jovenel Moise and the political instability it wrought, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck and days later, a cyclone pummeled the Caribbean island causing massive flooding and mudslides to flow around collapsed buildings. When words and pictures could no longer adequately describe the devastation, reporters turned to numbers to tell the horrors: 2,000 dead, about 10,000 injured, 61,000 homes destroyed, and 76,000 severely damaged.
The pattern of giving will repeat: A disaster strikes. A humanitarian crisis ensues precipitating an outpouring of American charity to provide for the victims’ survival.
Yet, according to philanthropic studies, giving slows down after the first few weeks of a disaster. This means as Haitians are still struggling with obtaining the basic needs of food, shelter, health care, and water, the news cycle will have already shifted to the next disaster. This time it happened quickly as we turned to watch the tragedy in Afghanistan unfold. The problem is that a community which is vulnerable before a disaster will ultimately become even more fragile and less ready to cope despite our humanitarian giving if full recovery doesn’t take place.
Instead, the community gets caught in a cycle of reeling from one disaster to another and enduring the related destruction along the way. This is what Haitian Americans meant when they talked with news reporters and said their beloved homeland couldn’t “catch a break.”
According to latest studies in 2018, about one out of every three U.S. households donated to disaster relief, for a total $3 billion. This story of U.S. generosity in the face of tragedy is all too familiar, but less well known is that our giving pours in for about two months and within six months will virtually cease.
However, a disaster is a turbulent event that rips the fabric of a community that will struggle for years at repair. Our media-driven attention will have long faded before a devastated community has built back better.
This is an unsustainable approach.
Scholars describe the outpouring of money after a disaster as the humanitarian impulse, but impulse is not the right tool for long-term development work. University of Toronto assistant professor Andrew Pinto summed it up best when he wrote that “The humanitarian impulse is too often fitful and fragmented.”
The disasters are growing in both number and intensity but charity remains focused on recovery. And only 12 cents of every dollar donated for disaster goes to reconstruction and recovery. For humanitarian aid to become more effective, it must be coupled to a deeper understanding of the systemic issues that have impacted its social infrastructure, lest we inadvertently rebuild back the same weaknesses. It is essential to focus on resilience — that ability to withstand a disaster in the first place and to thrive under new conditions. Instead of praising people for being “resilient,” we must change the systems that are making them vulnerable.
We must ask ourselves what system work needs to be accomplished that would reduce the need for grit on the part of victims by increasing the responsiveness of institutions. Unfortunately, resilience is not a top funding priority. Only about two cents per disaster dollar donation is earmarked for resilience and four cents for disaster preparedness measures.
Next month is National Preparedness Month and this year’s theme is “Prepare to Protect. Preparing for disasters is protecting everyone you love.” This should include reflecting on how to help the world’s growing number of people who are at increased risk of being a victim of man-made or natural catastrophes even when the press attention fades. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The future depends on what you do today.”
Chad Dion Lassiter is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.