How did their tragedy become All About Us?

There’s a danger that giving to Haiti has become a way of advertising our decency rather than helping the desperate.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

How did giving aid to Haiti become All About Us? Emergency aid should be a politics-free, urgent provision of the essentials of life – food, water and shelter – to people affected by a disaster. Yet following the Haiti quake, it has been turned into the opposite: an arena for advertising Western decency and working out moral dilemmas, where the practical work of getting stuff to the desperate of Port-au-Prince and beyond has been hampered by our own introspection, fears and trepidation.

Following the quake, around the world there was a desire to help Haitians. People made donations to charities and followed the news. Yet as the days went on, this spontaneous desire to assist became ritualised, transformed from a human instinct to do good into a political and media campaign to make us all feel good about how much we cared for Haiti. It became less about them – those affected by the earthquake – and more about us and how we might advertise our moral values through reaching out to Haitians.

In the media in the UK and elsewhere, there has been almost a game of one-upmanship to see whose editors and readers care most about the people of Haiti. The tabloids have launched Haiti campaigns which seem designed at least as much to big up Britain as to help Haitians. The Sun’s campaign, titled ‘Helping Haiti’, implores ‘YOU’, the tabloid reader, to show the world that Britain is ‘a nation of big hearts’ (1). The Sun is publishing almost as many messages of congratulations for its own Haiti campaign as it is real news reports about the post-earthquake situation. ‘Médecins Sans Frontières [is] overwhelmed by our decision to help…’; charities are ‘delighted that the Sun and its readers are supporting the relief effort’, and so on (2).

The ritualisation of people’s altruism, the transformation of it into a form of self-flattery, has made the instinctive post-earthquake concern into something less worthy than it was to begin with. Newspapers, both tabloid and broadsheet, have published ersatz-emotional reports about the children who have given their lunch money or their Christmas gifts to Haiti, and how this makes one ‘proud to be British’ (3).

In the US, too, where there was a great deal of compassion and altruism amongst everyday Americans for their close neighbours, Helping Haiti has become a moral mission rather than an emergency relief operation. President Barack Obama, or at least his advisers, seems keen to use the Haiti tragedy as a way of making amends for Washington’s alarming failures of infrastructure and humanity following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, to do overseas what America frequently fails to do at home: demonstrate solidarity and talk up community (4).

American newspapers have also launched rather self-congratulatory money-raising missions, leading one letter-writer to describe herself as being ‘almost sinfully proud of America’ (5). The American attitude to Haiti ‘fills me with patriotism and pride’, mainly, it seems, because it is so much more simplistic and black-and-white than America’s everyday, torturous moral and political dilemmas: ‘No focus groups. No spin. No hearings. Just aid.’ (6)

Others have made sure that they give aid to Haiti in a certain way – or have encouraged others not to give aid in a certain way – in order not to miss an opportunity to say something about themselves while helping others. All those worried about religious charities in Haiti can donate through Non-Believers Giving Aid, a group set up by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and other ‘freethought’ organisations.

The aim of this group is to expose ‘the lie that you need God to be good’ and to show that atheists, despite having ‘no church through which to give collectively and no church to rack up statistics of competitive generosity’, still like to help others (7). In short, where religious folk are more likely to donate to charities only because their churches foster a sense of ‘competitive giving’, atheists do it because they Really Care. Not only is this a slur against the many religious people who genuinely want to help people after a disaster, it is also itself a form of ‘competitive generosity’, ironically, designed to show that atheists are a group of big hearts in the same way the Sun wants to demonstrate that Britain is a ‘nation of big hearts’ (8). Atheist pride rather than British pride.

It also seems designed to limit, as much as possible, the influence of religion in Haiti during a time of disaster because, well, you know what Haitians are like… they’ll believe anything, especially if it comes from dangerous ‘preachers and televangelists, mullahs and imams’ (9). I find it extraordinary that in a moment of such extreme emergency, some people find the time to be choosy about who should be handing out water to Haitians. Does it really matter if emergency relief comes from some right-wing Christian group or from a French charity worker who has read The God Delusion?

Likewise, left-wing radicals and bloggers, influenced by the superstar of the anti-consumerist brigade Naomi Klein, are calling for the closer policing of the emergency aid arriving in Haiti. Following Klein’s rather warped and frequently incorrect thesis about how capitalists exploit disasters as a way of pursuing profit and enslaving poor nations – as put forward in her book The Shock Doctrine – these Kleinites argue that ‘disaster capitalism is headed to Haiti’, which will become a victim of ‘free market plunder’ (10). Left-wing campaigners should heap pressure on big corporations, they argue, to ensure that they don’t exploit post-earthquake Haiti.

This might sound radical, but, again, it amounts to a critique of the ‘wrong’ kind of emergency aid – that provided by big business rather than by apparently altruistic aid organisations – and its main concern is that Haiti might possibly be pushed towards big development rather than restored to its pre-earthquake, sustainable state. After the Asian tsunami of 2004, for example, Klein and others’ main complaint was that some of the destroyed fishing villages were turned into tourist resorts, on ‘pristine beaches (on prime real estate), scrubbed clean of all the messy signs of people working – a vacation Eden’ (11). In short, the problem is that poor areas were remade, turned from allegedly sustainable paradises into holiday resorts where the locals worked as waiters rather than as fishermen, and that is a Bad Thing.

Of course there are profound problems with the politics of aid, as spiked has argued many times before. But the main problem is not that aid industrialises and develops too much but that it does the opposite, trapping poor people in degrading and patronising relationships with donor nations, banks, NGOs and trendy charities which insist that everything is done ‘sustainably’ (back-breaking work) and in the interests of ‘future generations’ (don’t have too many children).

But more importantly, we ought to recognise the key difference between essential emergency aid following a disaster and the more problematic permanent aid that tends to define the North’s relationship to the South these days. That system of permanent aid should be ruthlessly critiqued and picked apart, but emergency aid should be a politics-free, morality-free, urgent provision of necessities to people who will die if they do not receive them. It doesn’t matter if those necessities are provided by Microsoft, the Vatican or by Richard Dawkins himself, just so long as they are provided.

And that is the problem right now: they are not being provided. The irony of the self-congratulation and tortured moral debates about who should provide the aid is that the aid is not getting through. And as one expert on aid powerfully argues, that is because of Western society’s own overblown fears about people who are poor and black and who believe in voodoo, which in some people’s minds can only add up to one thing: ‘murderous gangs’ (12). The moral disorientation of Western society has meant that Helping Haiti has been turned into a moral minefield in which we try to work out who we are and what we stand for, while the culture of fear in Western societies means that aid is not actually being delivered on the rubble-strewn streets of Port-au-Prince and beyond. It is not an exaggeration to say that Haiti is burning while the West squabbles.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) We can all help, Sun, 15 January 2010

(2) Campaign for cash – Helping Haiti, Sun, 15 January 2010

(3) Campaign for cash – Helping Haiti, Sun, 15 January 2010

(4) Obama heeding lessons of Katrina, Associated Press, 15 January 2010

(5) Friendly fire: Helping Haiti, LA Daily News, 17 January 2010

(6) Friendly fire: Helping Haiti, LA Daily News, 17 January 2010

(7) Non-Believers Giving Aid

(8) We can all help, Sun, 15 January 2010

(9) Non-Believers Giving Aid

(10) Disaster capitalism headed to Haiti, The People’s Voice, 18 January 2009

(11) Disaster capitalism headed to Haiti, The People’s Voice, 18 January 2009

(12) Fear of the poor is hampering Haiti rescue, The Times (London), 18 January 2010

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today