Our Haiti Response Has Been Yet Another Example Of Western Hypocrisy And Racist Double Standards
Why does it take an emergency for the people of Haiti to get clean water and basic infrastructure?
The international community has many aliases. This week in Haiti it swung into slow-motion urgent action in the guise of the "humanitarian community", configured for quite different purposes from when it becomes a "coalition of the willing" or "world opinion". Perhaps its most powerful symbol was Ban Ki Moon urging those who have lost everything to exercise patience.
A conspicuous philanthropy deployed before the world's TV cameras promised solidarity and partnership, as relief flights darkened the skies over the stricken country. It was possible for legions of journalists, but not doctors and nurses, to pass effortlessly through the blocked frontiers of misery. While the tragedy had to be told to the world, surely a small reservoir of reporters would have sufficed to spread the news, without every major TV company sending its own staff. Despite the presence of Medecins sans Frontieres, why is there no international team of medical personnel available for dispatch as swiftly as emissaries of the global media?
Western countries vied with each other for humanitarian supremacy. If Britain sent firefighters and search-and-rescue teams, the government of France promised to call a transnational conference, while Barack Obama, flanked by former presidents, announced the biggest ever US emergency deployment, including 10,000 soldiers. Gordon Brown fatuously congratulated the British people for their generosity in pledging £2m within 48 hours of the catastrophe, the story of our compassion foregrounded against their misery. Robert Gates announced the impossibility of airdrops of food or supplies, because he feared any such effort might spark "riots".
A major part of the US effort required significant military mobilisation. The people of Haiti, known to be as "volatile" as the forces of nature in the unhappy island, part of which they occupy, must be protected from themselves. The floods which destroyed Gonaives only five years ago were accompanied by "looting" and the presence of "armed gangs". Constant repetition of the words "poorest country in the western hemisphere" take on an incantatory menace. By whose agency does it remain so wretched? What has been the role of the US in the game of presidential ping-pong, which ousted the former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, only to reinstate him, later spiriting him away once more? Why is Haiti still pursuing policies associated with the discredited Washington consensus, when that unhappy ideological confection is supposed – erroneously – to have fallen apart? Was this why Hillary Clinton flew in, besieging an airport clogged with traffic, to offer her resonant metallic kinship with the suffering of Haiti?
It is clear that the "population" (as opposed to the people) are seen as posing a law-and-order problem. The ground must be "secured" before supplies can be distributed. As a US aircraft carrier, a looming mountain of steel, overshadows the broken port, the imagery arouses eerie echoes of shock and awe. American soldiers are required to make the city safe for the spectacle of deliverance which will, in any case, have come too late to assist those who died in the interminable interval between the earthquake and the arrival of the necessities for survival.
The media script had also been written in advance. Those who speak it have had countless dress rehearsals from other disasters – from Gujarat to Bam to Indonesia, to the tsunami and hurricane Katrina. The media chorus that accompanies each apocalypse speaks of "these people", master impresarios of grief, who tell how shock turns to anger when relief fails to reach them; while at the same time, they detect dignity among those whose lives are rarely portrayed, let alone celebrated, in their ritual presentation of the world. They give prominence to one rescued individual, as a story of hope, as though this could cancel the anonymous torment of thousands. The dead lying in the streets pose "a threat of epidemics".
This says much about elites and their fear of the dead, since it is known that the dead are less of a health hazard than the lack of clean water and basic nutrition for the living. Sweeping the dead into mass graves robs their loved ones of a vital need of survivors – the ability to grieve properly. How revealing it is that western TV must warn its viewers that they may be about to witness scenes of a distressing nature: nothing demonstrates more clearly the differential value of human life in the transmission of these scenes of dereliction. White people never die on screen, but the bodies of others are violated with impunity by the ubiquitous probing cameras. If warnings must be issued of impending images of death, this suggests that mere viewers in the rich world have a more delicate sensibility than those whose lives have been abridged in the most violent way imaginable.
Other questions remain. Immediately after the earthquake, there was no dearth of representatives of NGOs, charities and other doers of good, to describe the situation or estimate the extent of casualties. If so many organisations are working in Haiti, how can it remain in the state of extreme desolation which has been revealed? Are their efforts unavailing against far stronger structures of global injustice?
It is not, of course, as some rightwing Republicans in the US have suggested, that relief work is unnecessary or futile. The puzzle is, rather, why the people of Haiti do not have access to the basic services, nutrition, clean water and health care to which, it seems, only disaster entitles them. In the absence of catastrophe, the daily witness of loss, death and impoverishment struggles to capture the wayward attention of the media. Nobody "has the story", as TV announcers possessively advertise. The number of deaths daily, possibly equivalent to the perished of Haiti, go unrecorded. This scarcely perturbs that same international community, whose billion-dollar promises, caught on camera, fail to reach the sites of misery, where malnutrition, contaminated water and avoidable sickness take thousands to unmarked graves; sites which apparently now include some within walking distance of the centre of humanitarian action, the airport congested with the "good things" that Hillary Clinton promised.