The earthquake that ravaged Nepal on April 25 was devastating, killing thousands and causing economic losses worth billions. Reading about the widespread destruction brought back painful memories for me and, as someone who works in and on Haiti, I have been sought out for advice. What lessons does the 2010 Haiti earthquake offer today? My answer unvaryingly is that each disaster has its own context, its survivors and citizens as first responders their own cultural understandings and priorities. Local people need to be in charge of the response.

At 4.53 pm on January 12, 2010, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude struck outside Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The damage was unimaginable: an estimated 230,000 people died and equal numbers were injured. Over half the housing in the capital was seriously damaged; 105,000 houses were completely destroyed and 188,383 houses badly damaged, requiring repair. An estimated 1.5 million people lost their homes and stayed in makeshift Internally Displaced Persons camps. Though some of these numbers were subsequently contested, the Haiti earthquake became a transnational event because of foreign media coverage. For weeks it dominated the airwaves and cyberspace.

“Global citizens” were called to act and international agencies responded speedily to the appeal. The likes of George Clooney, Sean Penn, Anderson Cooper and Bill Clinton, among very many others, too stepped in to help.

In the first week, private US citizens contributed $275 million, mostly to large NGOs like the Red Cross. By contrast, the donations in the first week following Japan’s earthquake, which triggered a nuclear crisis and killed around 20,000 people, totalled $87 million. The contributions to Haiti sustained, adding up to $1.4 billion for the year. Sixty per cent of American households and over 80% of African-American families donated to the Haiti quake response, despite feeling the pinch from the global financial crisis. Worldwide, individuals donated $3.02 billion. Text messages were innovatively used to make donations – to such success that even the Red Cross adopted this technology and carried forward its usage in the Japan earthquake relief effort.

Flow of young missionaries

Individual citizens poured into Haiti after it was deemed “safe” by the US military, which had shut down the airport and rebuilt the infrastructure. Before the quake it was not uncommon to see groups of missionaries wearing matching T-shirts on flights. But after it struck, foreigners made up a majority of passengers. The average age of those flying in also decreased: following the earthquake missionary groups included large numbers of high school and even some junior high students, and the professional “development” or NGO staff increased their numbers. The Representative of the Organization for American States rued that too many twentysomethings staffed these agencies. A group of two dozen junior high school students wearing “map ede Ayiti” (I am helping Haiti) T-shirts told me they were volunteering at an orphanage.

In the US, media stories abounded of first-time mission trips, almost invariably to celebrate the hometown heroes. Many of these narratives extolled Haitian people’s spirituality and resilience, at times to justify less aid. The returning heroes, now newly-minted experts, spoke about the virtues of Christianity, of capitalist development, public health and hygiene, and limited representative democracy – all markers of assumed cultural and racial superiority. The collective residues of these stories justified, and naturalised, foreign control of the country.

In the wake of the temblor, American televangelist Pat Robertson claimed it was God’s punishment for Haiti’s “pact to the devil”, referring to the 1791 ceremony at Bois Caiman that had ignited the Haitian Revolution. While the mainstream coverage mercifully eschewed this attempt to invoke the Almighty, the terms of the discussion still placed the onus on Haiti for its evident lack of progress. The New York Times columnist David Brooks, for instance, argued that Haitian culture was resistant to progress.

A major reason for this narrative lay in the past. Haitian American anthropologist and performance artist Gina Ulysse demonstrated racialized continuities in discourses stemming from the Haitian Revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of slavery and colonial rule. The discourses are based on the fear of black self-determination and are a warning to other slaves against repeating the act which Haitian American anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot called “unthinkable”, particularly given the Enlightenment idea of who counted as a person.

The 'disaster narrative'

After the earthquake, the familiar language of Haiti being a “fragile” or “failed” state, which is among “the poorest in the hemisphere”, served to justify the need for foreign intervention as well as a convenient explanation for the limited progress of this intervention.

By focusing on “deficient” local cultural practices, social systems and institutions, the foreign media diverted attention from how foreign policies had played a role in amplifying the quake’s destructiveness. In processes similar to Mumbai, the population of Port-au-Prince had quadrupled after the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and United States Agency for International Development began promoting neoliberal economic policies there. Coupled with the erosion of state capacity, neoliberalism contributed to Haiti’s “vulnerability” to the disaster.

While specifics are obviously different, there are parallels with Kathmandu.

The “disaster narrative” highlights some analyses and actors within the story, while framing other analyses and actors outside. For example, Haiti-as-a-failed-state is within the frame, while foreign imposed neoliberalism is outside. Similarly, heroic acts of foreigners are highlighted, whereas Haitian people are outside the frame, dehumanised and infantilised.

Given the many circuits connecting media coverage and disaster response, there are many potential outcomes of the disaster narrative. My five years of research has uncovered four.

First, the discourse of a “weak state” served to justify foreign control of the process and near-total exclusion of Haitian people from it. Second, this exclusion, having roots in framing Haitian people out of the story and tropes of dehumanisation, led to practices and relationships wherein aid recipients felt treated like animals. Third, the disaster response was greatly influenced by the “photo op”, prioritising high-visibility and high-cost “solutions” at the expense of those more sustainable. Finally, a “blame game” led to increasingly severe responses, including increasingly violent forced evictions.

Mark Schuller is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and NGO Leadership and Development at the Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti.