Saturday, October 26, 2013

Hurricane Mitch: fifteen years later

On October 26, 1998, Hurricane Mitch was classified as a Category 5 hurricane. It had formed a few days earlier and greatly affected Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. According to one report, of the almost 19,000 people killed by Mitch, 14,600 were from Honduras. About 70% of Honduras’s agricultural production was lost.

Then the aid agencies descended on Honduras and the other countries.

Aid was needed – not only short time rescue and food and housing, but also long term rebuilding of the country.

NGOs, church groups, and governmental aid agencies came. But, as Jeffrey T. Jackson notes in The Globalizers: Development Workers in Action, their presence was a mixed bag.

Money is power. In most cases aid that comes from government and international aid agencies has numerous strings attached and are often there to advance the interests of the donor countries. As Jackson notes, “it is the donor countries that benefit most from development assistance and nation building in the developing world.”

In his chapter on “Rebuilding after Hurricane Mitch,” he details what happened. People were helped and a few of the agenda of Honduran social organizations (such as democratization, decentralization, and transparency) began to be addressed at least in theory.

But I think that the presence of these large globalizing agencies and innumerable non-governmental was not positive.

My first complaint is that these agencies brought their agendas and tried to garner support, rather than really empowering the people affected by the disaster. Development aid is power and is often used in ways that do not respect the rights of people. They enhance the interests of the giver rather than help the recipients work together to enhance their own lives.

Secondly, all this aid came and so many agencies continue to exist in Honduras that their presence may contribute to the passivity and fatalism I’ve seen here. “We can’t do it. We have no money. What aid agency (or governmental body) can GIVE us what we need?” There are a few projects and processes that do try to have people organize, set their own agendas, and move forward to make their lives more human. But the presence of so many groups can lead to a passivity that becomes dependent on outside groups which then set the agenda for the people.

Thirdly, since they usually don’t deal with the systematic causes of injustice and poverty they may enhance the power of the economic and political elites.

It is interesting that this is what the Catholic bishops warned about in the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes], ¶63:
…we are at a moment in history when the development of economic life could diminish social inequalities if that development were guided and coordinated in a reasonable and human way. Yet all too often it serves only to intensify the inequalities. 

How we change this is a serious issue. I may need to try to return to my thoughts in a future blog post. But I wanted to recall the devastation of Hurricane Mitch fifteen years ago and note the dangers of certain types of development and development assistance.

1 comment:

Doug Zylstra said...

John - Thank you for that post. Amazing that it's been 15 years; especially with all the awful and wondrous memories from that time.