The news that Haiti had been hit by an earthquake came to me in a text message from a former colleague of mine in the UNICEF-Haiti office. My first reaction was, “This can’t be true!” Of all the humanitarian crises we had planned for and dealt with during the four tumultuous years I spent as the head of UNICEF’s office in Haiti, the idea that an earthquake could upend the country never crossed our minds. But in less than a minute life for hundreds of thousands of Haiti’s urban poor went from difficult to disastrous.
For weeks after the earthquake, I was haunted by the faces of people I had known during my years in Haiti, and haunted by thoughts that they may be trapped under rubble, waiting for help that never came. Watching the news became an obsession, as I held out hope of catching a glimpse of a familiar face. All the while, I was reeling from the shocking injustice of this latest blow to the Haitian people.
Before the earthquake, I didn’t think there was much that could surpass the suffering Haitians experienced during the three years of economic sanctions the Organization of American States and the United Nations imposed following the ouster of the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991. Until 1994, when the sanctions were lifted with the return of President Aristide, the impact of the diplomatic, political, commercial, financial, and cultural sanctions “entered the nation’s bloodstream like a virus,” as I first wrote in my 1999 book, Sanctions in Haiti: Human Rights and Democracy Under Assault. The sanctions greatly complicated life for a population that was already subject to politically motivated killings, forced displacement, and arbitrary detention. Under the trade embargo, some 200,000 jobs were lost, many of them held by women supporting six dependents. The price of food soared, while agricultural production plummeted more than 20 percent due to the lack of fertilizer and the increased cost of transportation. Children were taken out of school and sent to work, often as domestic servants to other poor families in the age-old tradition of restavek, a form of slavery. Others were simply abandoned and left to fend for themselves in the street. Health services collapsed, the unemployment rate increased from 50 percent to 75 percent, life expectancy fell by two years, and child malnutrition rates soared to 50 percent, from 27 percent. The sanctions also had a tremendous effect on Haitian government institutions and on the country’s basic economic and social infrastructure—a situation from which Haiti had yet to recover when the earthquake struck on January 12.
Though the sanctions were politically motivated and the earthquake was a natural disaster, for Haiti’s poor, the devastation of each is heartbreakingly similar. An underlying cause of the destruction wrought by both the sanctions and the earthquake is the weakness of Haitian institutions, complicated by a lack of political consensus on the nation’s future. Into the void have stepped the people of Haiti, courageous, resilient, resourceful, and inventive, coping as best they might to protect themselves and their families.
Indeed, when I reflect on my own experience of Haiti, it is the people I remember best. They are the resource that the state, the UN, and all of Haiti’s international partners must not—cannot—overlook. The Haitian people have an extraordinary ability not only to survive, but to drive remarkable change. The key is reaching a consensus on a common goal. Too often in the past, polarizing political differences and an absence of trust have undermined consensus, weakening not only state institutions but the social fabric itself.
What’s needed as Haiti starts down the very long road to recovery is a dynamic social process that harnesses the power of people and politicians—along with the support of the international community—toward a minimum consensus on the values and priorities that will guide Haiti’s future. My own hope is that this consensus will be for the transformation of Haiti into a peaceful country of opportunity, where every girl and boy, man and woman, is respected and able to live a life of dignity, protected not only from illness, ignorance, and violence, but from falling buildings, torn infrastructure, and the perils of living without the benefit of a modern state.
Elizabeth Gibbons ’76 is the deputy director of policy and planning and associate director of gender, rights, and civic engagement in UNICEF’s New York headquarters, where she provides guidance on the organization’s work on gender and human rights. Her career in social development and humanitarian affairs has spanned close to twenty-five years. In addition to Haiti, she has lived and worked in Togo, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Guatemala. All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of UNICEF.
Summer ’10 SAQ