Help Us Help Them. Properly.

Felix Kyros Ang | 4 May 2015 | Toronto, Canada


At the start of this week, an earthquake of frightening magnitude struck the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. A number of surrounding countries, namely India, China, Bangladesh and Bhutan, did not escape unscathed – the earthquake’s epicentre, however, fell squarely in Nepal. At a moment magnitude of 7.8, and at a Mercalli Intensity Scale classification of IX (Violent), it is the most powerful disaster to strike Nepal since 1934.

The humanitarian response across our world has been heartening. Within 15 minutes of the quake, India initiated Operation Maitri (Amity), a massive-scale humanitarian mission charged with effectuating relief and rescue efforts in her geographical neighbour. Other international state and non-state actors have mobilised to send aid to the unfortunate people of Nepal as well.

The speed and goodwill so observable in these global humanitarian efforts can be nothing but inspiring. It reflects well on us, not only as peoples of the world, but on us as the totality of our brief collective existences on this planet. One cannot help but marvel at humanity itself.

Yet we should not do so in complete ignorance. Not too long ago (in 2010, to be exact), an earthquake of similarly massive scale struck the Central American state of Haiti. We responded then on a similar front – sending aid, money and our armed forces to help a Port-au-Prince almost entirely reduced to rubble. One such example of foreign assistance took the form of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). As all order collapsed in Haitian society, rendering their poorest and weakest entirely helpless, MINUSTAH’s armoured vehicles rolled down the streets of Port-au-Prince, carrying heavily armed soldiers whose presence and actions kept Haiti civil. While Haitians struggled in their poverty, backwardness and misfortune, our soldiers went beyond keeping the peace to clearing rubble, setting up structures for vocational education and winning the love of the rescued. Or did they?

It is true that Port-au-Prince’s infrastructure collapsed, and this contributed to the need for foreign intervention. It is true that foreign armoured military vehicles stood in the streets of Haiti’s capital, and it is true that those vehicles brought with them highly-armed foreign soldiers. Furthermore, it cannot be doubted that the world gave food, resources and built schools to train the Haitian people – but that there is hardly the end of the story. Indeed, because of fears of corruption, the billions of dollars pledged to the reconstruction effort was not to enter the Haitian state directly, but given to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), which was to be effectively overseen by Bill Clinton. Haiti was “not ready”, you see – and while Haiti theoretically had a presence in the IHRC, in practice, Bill Clinton really answered to few others. Moreover, despite the 16.3 billion dollars pledged to the project, only 2% of the rubble in Port-au-Prince had been cleared, and only 10% of the 125,000 promised shelters had been constructed, 7 months after the earthquake. Of the $2.4 billion given for humanitarian aid, a shocking 93% was paid to the UN itself, and a further 6% simply vanished (could not be accounted for). Beyond the irony inherent in funds disappearing in the IHRC, which was created due to concerns of Haitian corruption in the first place, the question remains – Where did the money go? Why was so little done?

On top of that, was it true that the Haitian people were really so helpless and incapable of contributing to the relief project? At the International Donors Conference, Haitians were given merely 20 minutes (10 minutes for the Haitian state, and 10 minutes of actual Haitian testimonies) for their proposal on what the reconstruction project should focus on. Now, perhaps it cannot be simply granted that those affected by a disaster know which needs actually are more important for a relief project to address, but the issue inherent in this disproportionate representation at Haiti remains – did we, and do we, simply know best?

A Nepalese man cries as he walks through the earthquake debris in†Bhaktapur, near Kathmandu, Nepal, Sunday, April 26, 2015. A strong magnitude 7.8 earthquake shook Nepal's capital and the densely populated Kathmandu Valley before noon Saturday, causing extensive damage with toppled walls and collapsed buildings, officials said. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)
A Nepalese man cries as he walks through the earthquake debris in Bhaktapur, near Kathmandu, Nepal, Sunday, April 26, 2015. A strong magnitude 7.8 earthquake shook Nepal’s capital and the densely populated Kathmandu Valley before noon Saturday, causing extensive damage with toppled walls and collapsed buildings, officials said. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

Arguments that donor aid may be misguided in the long-run aren’t new. Theories and data that explain how a donation of, say, rice, may utterly destroy the domestic rice industry of a country which desperately needs said industry to sustain future economic growth, have been extensively debated in the global political literature. To bring this back to Haiti, the international humanitarian project, under Bill Clinton’s watch, actually directed their funds to the reconstruction of the exact same garment factory and industry which was done during the U.S. occupation of Haiti decades ago. How sinister politics must be, when modern humanitarian intervention can resemble the imperialistic and colonial actions of the “bad old days”!

I think what is more significant to us in all our modernity is this – that any mistakes, any misguided policies, and any political corruption is being done with our money, with our resources, and with our goodwill. If they should occur, then they betray not only the people that we set out to help, but they betray us as well. We trust these institutions, these people who promise to take our hopes and transform them into goodness, and so it is doubly important that they actually do so. It is important to those who receive our aid, and it is important to we who do the actual giving.

To be clear, I’m not saying that, because of these problems, we should never have donated in the first place. Nor am I saying that we should never have cared in the first place. Indeed, the capacity to care for each other beyond distances, ideologies and borders that we have demonstrated again and again in Chile, Haiti, Japan (and now in Nepal), is deeply inspirational and highly respectable; a fantastic testament to the human race. I ask here simply that when we give aid, we hold those who promise to take that aid and bring it to the needy, accountable. Accountable for our money, our hopes and our care. I ask for the freedom to not just be inspired by our humanitarianism, but for the right be proud of it as well; and I ask for just this freedom now as we stand strong against the misfortune that has befallen the people of Nepal.


Further readings on the subject:

Jennifer Greenburg, “The ‘Strong Arm’ and the ‘Friendly Hand’: Military Humanitarianism in Post-earthquake Haiti,” Journal of Haitian Studies 19:1 (2013), 95-122


Felix is a third year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, majoring in International Relations, Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies, and Philosophy. He is drawn to the complex interactions that unfold from the intersections between power, conflict, social narratives, the law, and the individual, and spends most of his waking hours pondering such issues.