Challenging Media Narratives on Haiti

By Randall Amster 01-29-2010

A number of commentators have questioned the accepted logic that disasters bring out the worst in people, directly challenging the pervasive "looters run amok" imagery often perpetuated by the media and held out by lawmakers as a rationale for military occupation. Having done relief work following Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, I have found that people are more likely to work together -- even if only out of necessity -- when severe hardship strikes. In fact, it is precisely the isolation and individualism of ordinary daily life that tap into our worst instincts, while the removal of these impediments can actually liberate our better qualities.

As Dustin Howes recently observed, "the vast majority of people in Haiti responded to the earthquake with the apparently just as natural of an impulse to help one another." The New York Times has uncovered a widespread ethic of "communal rationing" in Haiti, in which "no matter what is found, or how hungry the forager, everything must be shared." As the article explains, many Haitians "are finding ways to share. In several neighborhoods of Carrefour, a poor area closer to the epicenter, small soup kitchens have sprung up with discounted meals, subsidized by Haitians with a little extra money ... [Three women there] started cooking for their neighbors the day after the earthquake. On many mornings, they serve 100 people before 10 a.m. Smiling and proud, the women said they did not have the luxury of waiting for aid groups to reach them in their hilly neighborhood."

This is the untold and largely unreported state of the crisis in Haiti. Amy Goodman filed a series of reports for Democracy Now! from places where relief had yet to be delivered. In Leogane, the epicenter of the quake where perhaps 90% of the city had been destroyed, Mayor Santos Alexis noted that aside from people occasionally taking food from destroyed stores, "there's no violence really in Leogane." Still, the mainstream relief agencies remain obsessed with security concerns, to the extent that they will drop small amounts of food from above rather than land and talk with the people on the ground. As Mayor Alexis lamented, the people "feel humiliated, because of the airplane flying and dropping some bread to them. They feel very embarrassed by that." Haitian expatriate blogger Wadner Pierre likewise reflects on these unfortunate realities, and how they stand in contrast to baseline Haitian values:

My beloved country is one where people know how to do 'konbit' (put their hands together) to help their brothers and sisters. But because so many of the organizations now involved in the relief effort do not know Haiti well and do not have Haitian employees who speak the local languages, the situation may worsen

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