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Palestine, Haiti, and the Politics of Aid: “Disaster Relief” vs Sustainability and Self-Determination

Nada Elia, Shana griffin, and Alisa Bierria
Date Published: 
April 1, 2010

On January 12, 2010, a massive earthquake struck Haiti, killing an estimated 230,000 people, injuring over 300,000, and effectively destroying the capital city of Port-Au-Prince and its surrounding towns and cities, while displacing and rendering homeless nearly 1.5 million people. Almost immediately, international aid and charity organizations, individuals, faith-based and community groups, and national governments mobilized food, medicine, clothes, services, and money.

Less than a week later on January 17, Palestinians commemorated the one-year anniversary of the end of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 22-day military assault on the Gaza Strip, which killed approximately 1,400 Palestinians—a third of whom were children—and rendered 20,000 homeless. Even prior to that assault, the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, the majority of whom are refugees expelled from their homes in 1948, had been weakened, impoverished, and starved for eighteen months, resulting in conditions described as “a prelude to genocide” by United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Richard Falk. A year later, Gaza remains besieged and in crisis, and the Israeli state continues to block humanitarian relief aid from reaching devastated Palestinian communities.

Why the different responses to the two catastrophes? This phenomenon may be explained by the apparent differences between the two: one is human-induced, a political, military assault to control and dispossess a criminalized people, while the other is considered a natural geological phenomenon, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, which could have happened anywhere.  However, in both cases, aid is closely controlled based on each location's particular experience of disenfranchisement and marginalization. The ongoing consequences of disaster, whether or not the people are deemed worthy of disaster aid, and the conditions that are put on aid distribution are all shaped by pre-existing relations of control, regulation, exploitation, and vulnerability.

Activists, NGOs, and some governmental agencies have been trying to get desperately-needed humanitarian aid to Gaza for years. The Viva Palestina convoys and Gaza Freedom March of December 2009 to January 2010 are only the most recent and widely publicized examples. Because so much of the infrastructure has been shattered by the siege and repeated Israeli assaults, most places in Gaza have no electricity, no running water, and no materials to rebuild destroyed homes and facilities.

Seriously aggravating an already dire situation, Operation Cast Lead eliminated nearly half of the hospitals and health care facilities in Gaza, putting the entire population of Palestinians in Gaza at severe health risk.  Although the UN and activists across the globe have denounced Israel's criminal blockade, Israeli forces continue to engage in the collective punishment of Gaza’s refugee population in order to weaken the democratically elected Hamas. Aid, or more correctly its withholding, is clearly utilized as a powerful political tool that can be wielded in any way an outside power sees fit.

Preemptive criminalization

In contrast, Haiti has seen an outpouring of aid from all over the globe, complete with celebrity telethons and a special appeal from First Lady Michelle Obama. But what kinds of strings are attached to the aid pouring into post-earthquake Haiti? Underneath the superficial differences are similar military and political forces at play in both countries. While the Israeli state, with the explicit backing of the US, effectively blocks aid to Gaza, the US is engaging in the militarization of disaster aid and is deploying what Kenyan writer and activist Shailja Patel identifies as "preemptive criminalization of disaster victims."

The militarization of aid to Haiti includes installing heavily armed US forces for recovery efforts based on the practices of military conflict and violence, effectively deciding what aid will enter Haiti, how that aid will be distributed, who is deserving of help, what security threat Haitians represent to US borders, and where survivors will be relocated (Guantanamo Bay) if, as one US Navy Rear Admiral put it, "Haitians leave their homeland and are captured at sea."

And just as Operation Cast Lead aggravated decades of Palestinian dispossession, the unimaginable suffering and challenges the people of Haiti are experiencing due to the devastating earthquake are a clear example of a disaster made worse by years of deep seated racism, militarization, and neo-liberal conditionality policies of development. As a consequence of the 1804 Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt in history, the Haitian people were forced to pay reparations to France for their success in overthrowing their colonial ruler, thus subverting Haiti’s sovereignty, bankrupting the newly formed republic, and creating its cycle of debt dependency.

The refusal of the US and Western European countries to recognize Haiti as a sovereign nation in the 1800s, the economic manipulation by foreign governments and international financing agencies, and the eventual US occupation of Haiti, have contributed to uneven development patterns, poverty, violence, and dictatorships that have plagued the country for centuries. Additionally, the US-backed neo-liberal economic exploitation of Haiti by the IMF and World Bank under the Clinton Administration during the 1990s, as well as the US-supported 2004 coup, which undermined Haitian democracy under the Bush Administration, have exacerbated poverty, unsustainable development, labor exploitation, corruption, and other intersecting forms of gender and class-based violence in Haiti. 

Undesirable communities

Aid is often used as a tool of control and manipulation on a macro-scale, as a result of geo-political and economic dominance, war, occupation, and catastrophic natural events. It is also seen at micro-levels, when governments and international agencies determine what kind of aid is offered, who receives it and under what conditions, and who is most vulnerable to having resources taken away and/or withheld.  These dynamics are revealed when we examine the experiences of those who are not deemed aid-worthy; most notably, incarcerated persons, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people, people with disabilities, sex workers, communities representing a “demographic threat,” and those perceived as a burden on the state. Just as these communities were viewed as “undesirable” prior to a disaster, they continue to be marginalized after a catastrophe, when criminalization and withheld resources have exponentially greater consequences.

Pre-existing racialized gender inequality and vulnerability during times of emergencies often become disasters unto themselves, resulting in punitive policies and practices of sexual violence, reproductive violence, and population control that criminalize the bodies of those experiencing the devastation. Examples of reproductive/population violence include the practice of kidnapping and trafficking Haitian children for the purposes of giving them to “better” parents in the US, and the recent genocidal calls by Harvard fellow Martin Kramer to prevent Palestinian births, which he argues creates “superfluous young men.”  Poverty, economic instability, and climate change are then blamed on these bodies, always already perceived as “over-populating.” Instead of prioritizing the provision of immediate humanitarian aid, family reunification, reproductive self-determination, and human rights protection, punitive policies are then enforced through the use of armed forces, neo-liberal economic mandates, eugenic family planning policies, controlled corporate development, and human rights violations.   

Sustainability and self-determination

Because international aid generally results in an exacerbation of pre-existing inequalities, further dispossessing those who had already been pushed to society’s margins, it is critical for those of us wishing to help to examine the politics and practices of international aid agencies, which are often myopic to the constraints of individuals within these communities. We must keep in mind that genuine solidarity requires that we educate ourselves about the sociopolitical circumstances on the ground as perceived, lived, and analyzed by those who need it most. These circumstances, this organic experience, will differ from the image presented to us by international groups and agencies which, through funding or ideology, often aggravate the oppressive dynamics amongst those we seek to support. Our guidance must come from those who have experienced the catastrophe, and will endure its long-term consequences. Whether in Haiti or Palestine, as indeed in every part of the world, grassroots organizations are already active on the ground, whose leadership and experience we must heed, if we are to be respectful of these communities’ self-determination. 

In Palestine, close to 200 civilian groups representing a broad majority of the Palestinian population living under Israeli apartheid as well as in the Diaspora, issued a call for a global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to end the apartheid. That call first came out in 2005, and the Palestinian civilian leadership has repeatedly asked that supporters engage in BDS as a form of nonviolent resistance. Therefore, solidarity with Palestine requires that we endorse and follow the Palestinian call for BDS. This, rather than more symbolic attempts at delivering aid, is what Palestinians need to end the apartheid, which is the cause of the humanitarian crisis.  

In Haiti, we must look to local grassroots groups that are steeped in the country’s knowledge and experience who are defining the kind of support that Haiti needs. The statement jointly issued by the Women’s Health & Justice Initiative and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence begins to outline how US-based groups and individuals can assist grassroots recovery in Haiti and includes suggestions such as donating to local Haitian organizations engaged in gender justice work, convening popular education opportunities to learn more about Haiti's powerful political history, and mobilizing for the end of US militarization and economic exploitation of Haiti.

Immediate aid relief and rescue operations are critical for the survival of a devastated community; however, if aid does not support the long-term sustainability and sovereignty of a people, the consequences of that aid itself could be as catastrophic as the military or natural disaster that befell them. 

Nada Elia is a third-generation refugee from Jerusalem, Palestine.  She serves on the Organizing Committee of the US Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and co-chairs INCITE!'s Anti-Militarism and Anti-Occupation Collective.  A scholar-activist, Nada is core faculty at Antioch University in Seattle, WA.

Shana griffin is a black feminist, mother of a 16 year-old, social justice activist, and researcher based in New Orleans.  Shana is co-founder of the Women’s Health & Justice Initiative, an INCITE! affiliate, where she currently serves as Research and Advocacy Director.  Her current research examines the intersections of gender, disasters, displacement, and reproductive violence in the lives and on the bodies of women of color.

Alisa Bierria is a black feminist activist who works with INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and the Women's Health & Justice Initiative.  She also works on her dissertation, which proposes a framework to describe agency as it exists in the context of oppression.

INCITE! is a national activist organization of radical feminists of color advancing a movement to end violence against women of color and our communities through direct action, critical dialogue, and grassroots organizing.

To connect with INCITE!’s transnational work with Haiti, please visit:,

For more info about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Campaign to Support Palestine, please visit:,