ALLEN M. PRICE | The Unintended Consequences of Haitian Humanitarianism

On January 1, 1804, from the city of Gonaïve, newly freed African slaves of the French colony Saint-Domingue founded the new nation of Haiti. Haiti was the first black-led republic in the world, the only country ever to be born from a slave revolt, and the first independent country in Latin America. Former slaves of the island modified the spelling of the original name, Ayiti, meaning “home or mother of the earth” in the Taino-Arawak Native American language, and “sacred earth or homeland” in the Fon African language, in order to symbolize a new era, and breakaway from the period of slavery. But Haiti agreed to make reparations to French slaveholders in the amount of 150 million francs in exchange for international recognition.

When the slaves were fighting for freedom and independence, it is safe to say that not one of them could have envisioned such an unexpected consequence resulting. But reparation became just that: an unanticipated consequence that indemnity bankrupted the newly-founded country. This unanticipated consequence of freedom took more than a century to pay, well into the 1950s, and bled away Haiti’s resources for economic development. The burden of such a heavy financial obligation left the people of Haiti, a country in financial balance, no chance of any sort of common financial future. It begs the question why? Why did the Haitians cave to the demands of France? They had just defeated one of the strongest, richest countries in the world. They had freed themselves from slavery, and established a new country. They had the skills and the equipment to produce some of the world’s most sought after commodities, commodities that had made France so rich and so powerful. So why?

In many regards reparation was just another type of enslavement. A social control, biopower in the form of reparation, that kept the “emancipated” slaves shackled to France’s ankles for decades. For it was a way of disciplining and surveying the sovereign country, of enumerating the Haitian country and its resources, determining the country’s finances, and regulating its role in the world.  How much money went from the slave colony to one of the richest countries in the world is still uncertain. But one thing that is certain is many adverse events ensued as a result of Haiti’s forced payment of reparations and independence from France.

Thomas Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and even members of Congress refused to recognize the country for fear that it would strengthen the newly established Black republic, and encourage slaves in America to revolt. Senator Robert V. Hayne of South Carolina stated, “Our policy with regard to Hayti [sic] is plain. We never can acknowledge her independence….The peace and safety of our large portion of our union even forbids us even to discuss [it].”1 It was not until 1862 when President Lincoln acknowledged the new black republic did the U.S. recognize Haiti’s existence.

 During the twentieth century, social suffering became synonymous with Haiti. Between 1915 and 1934 the nation underwent U.S. military occupation; America fear that the country’s political turmoil would spin out of control. Repressive coups and military dictatorships under the hereditary Duvalier regime made the country economically and politically subordinate to the international community. These socioeconomic and sociopolitical forces resulting from structural violence caused deep-rooted poverty, and created the conditions for diseases to flourish. Foreign intervention in the form of stabilization measures and structural adjustments, in the hopes of bringing economic and political stability to the first black republic, made it dependent on foreign aid. Once the richest French colony in the New World—as a result of the immense profits from the production and exportation of sugar (a commodity considered the most valuable commodity in European trade2), coffee, rice, and other produce, an outcome made possible by the labor and knowledge of the enslaved Africans who brought to the island the skills and technology for production—Haiti, by the end of the 80s, was dependent on those same imports to meet its food consumption. The food policies of the U.S. imposed on Haiti during the Clinton Administration made the country dependent on foreign food, an unexpected consequence that President Clinton did not envision.

In 1994, Clinton forced Haiti to cut its rice tariff on imported subsidized U.S. rice from 50 percent to 3 percent. The intended consequence was to improve the conditions of the Haitian people by making Haiti the most open to trade of all the Caribbean countries large amounts of cheap American rice imports. But Clinton’s political interventions of free trade came with a price that caused the unemployment and displacement of thousands of farmers, traders, and millers, wiped out Haitian rice farming, and seriously damaged the country’s ability to be self-sufficient. It is hard to believe that President Clinton actually thought it was better for Haiti to import its food from the U.S. rather than produce its own. America’s founding is based on independence. So how could Clinton possibly believe such a thing? How could he not have known that people not being able to fend for themselves, as Americans do, would produce such unanticipated and negative consequences? He, himself, called it “a devil’s bargain” when speaking to a reporter after admitting that his food policies made things worse for Haiti to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 10, 2010:

Since 1981, the United States has followed a policy, until the last year or so when we started rethinking it, that we rich countries that produce a lot of food should sell it to poor countries and relieve them of the burden of producing their own food, so, thank goodness, they can leap directly into the industrial era. It has not worked. It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. It was a mistake that I was a party to. I am not pointing the finger at anybody. I did that. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else.3

Haiti’s social suffering continued so much so throughout the 90s that by the time of the new millennium, Haiti was being classified as the “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” According to the World Development Report 2000/2001, sixty-three percent of the population lacked access to safe water, fifty-five percent lacked access to health services, and seventy-five percent lacked access to basic sanitation. Then just one month into the new decade of the new millennium, on Monday, January 12, 2010, at 4:53 p.m., a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti. Hundreds of thousands lacked adequate housing, food, water, and medical care. Aid poured in from all over the world. Camps were set up to house the displaced as well as those needing medical attention. Tens of thousands were packed into the camps. And by mid-February, more than one million displaced people were living in the camps.

Tragically, the camps became the springboard for sexual assault and rape of girls and women. The lack of lighting, basic sanitation, and the social structures of everyday life in the camps, made it easy for men to take advantage of girls and women. A quote from Paul Farmer’s wife Didi in Haiti After the Earthquake brings this unexpected consequence to the forefront:

Sex­ual assault and rape were com­mon in pre-earthquake Haiti—hence some of our own ethno­graphic stud­ies of “forced sex” in rural Haiti—but the social struc­tures of fam­ily and neigh­bor­hood net­works pro­vided some pro­tec­tion for Haiti’s women and girls. The col­lapse of this social infra­struc­ture on Jan­u­ary 12 brought with it a destruc­tion of the phys­i­cal and social safe­guards against vio­lence, leav­ing women and girls com­pletely vul­ner­a­ble to sex­ual vio­lence. Many girls spoke of being raped. As vul­ner­a­ble as Vir­ginie is within her family’s “shel­ter,” she and other girls are at even greater risk when they ven­ture to the bathroom––little more than a crude dark closet with a hole in the ground where they squat in dark­ness. Latrines are far away. Numer­ous girls described being fol­lowed and attacked on the way to the toi­lets. While armed police may patrol some camps in the day, and cit­i­zen brigades have formed in some camps to help escort women and girls to latrines and cook­ing areas at dark, armed men con­tinue to prey upon them.4

Humanitarian groups’ imperious interest was in placing the displaced, and treating those in need of medical attention. Aid workers did not know that the camps would be used to sexually assault and rape girls and women. It was not the intention of the humanitarians when setting up the tents. It was, however, the consequence of the immediacy of the imperious interest. It is not hard to understand why certain events are unexpected and unanticipated in transitional societies such as Haiti. The roots of the unanticipated and negative consequences of assistance are found in the attributes of complex humanitarian emergencies and in the global conditions that intensify the challenges created by these emergencies: the growing international security vacuum and the privatization of international assistance.5




  1. Paul Famer, Haiti after the Earthquake, page 126
  2. Ponting, Clive (2000), World History: A New Perspective, London: Chatto & Windus, ISBN 0-701-16834-X
  3. Paul Farmer, Haiti After the Earthquake, page 150
  4. Paul Farmer, Haiti After the Earthquake, page 148.
  5. Daniel Druckman, International conflict resolution after the Cold War, National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on International Conflict Resolution


ALLEN M. PRICE | is an African American writer from Rhode Island. He wrote "The Unintended
Consequences of Haitian Humanitarianism" while taking the course Global Health Case Studies
from a Biosocial Perspective taught by United Nations Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti and medical anthropologist Dr. Paul Farmer at Harvard University. Allen is a 2018 semi-finalist for
Grub Street’s Emerging Writing Fellowship. He has an MA in journalism from Emerson
College. His fiction and nonfiction work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fourth River,
Cosmonauts Avenue, Jellyfish Review, The Citron Review, Gertrude Press, The Adirondack
, Tulane Review, Columbia Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, Muscle & Fitness,
Natural Health magazine, and many other places. He is writing a memoir and spent time working
on it with Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Paul Harding. Excerpts of it have appeared or are
forthcoming in The Fourth River, Jellyfish Review, and The Citron Review.