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

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

By Nada Elia, Shana griffin, and Alisa Bierria, with INCITE! Women Color Against Violence

(A version of this article will be printed in the Apr/June ’10 issue of Left Turn Magazine.  We are releasing in recognition of Global Boycott, Divestment, Sanction Day.)

On January 12th, 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 17th, 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-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. UNICEF reports that the blockade has resulted in the severe malnutrition of thousands of children in Gaza.  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 re-located (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 neoliberal 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 from 1915-1934, have aided in uneven development patterns, poverty, violence, and dictatorships that have plagued the country for centuries. Additionally, the US-backed neoliberal 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 onto 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, neoliberal economic mandates, eugenic family planning policies, controlled corporate development, and human rights violations.

Sustainability & 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, who 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 socio-political 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 non-violent 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.


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

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 contact us at

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Update from OTD Chile on the earthquake and request for donations

OTD logo

Questioning Transphobia recently posted updates from Andrea Rivera of Organización de Transexuales por la Dignidad de la Diversidad (OTD) on the post-earthquake situation in Chile. They write:

We are seeing realities that make our souls crunch and we can provide solutions to the immediate problem, that is food, but much more will be needed to help them have a place to live again. I am asking your help for the immediate needs.

We are using our own money for the help we are providing plus some donations, but we have no more money. We need your help urgently. We need money for gas, food, toiletries, bread and to give cash to those we visit so they can buy what they need. The situation is very chaotic. Some of our colleagues have no place to live. We must be able to act and help them.

I ask you as friends: whatever you can deposit in the OTD account will be for help; whatever you can give will be useful. Please let us know by email if you make a deposit and for how much it was so we can organize ourselves and provide you with a receipt in due time, specifying the expenses we will make. If you know of any funder that can help in cases of catastrophes, please let us know so we can apply.

More updates and information about how to support are available here.

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Haiti: Responding to the Situation

January 20, 2010

It has been a week since we all learned of the devastating situation unfolding in Haiti, as thousands struggle to survive and await rescue and humanitarian assistance.  INCITE! organizers and human rights activists around the world are mobilizing donations, organizing volunteer relief efforts, and collecting supplies to respond to the urgent humanitarian needs of the people of Haiti.

As these important efforts are underway, we recommend that we also pause and ask the question: How can we intentionally support the long term sustainability and self determination of the Haitian people? When crises of this magnitude occur, we all understandably want to act quickly, but we must also figure out how to act thoughtfully in our efforts to develop a comprehensive, sustainable, and accountable transnational radical feminist response.

The event of an earthquake of this magnitude can be catastrophic for any place. But in Haiti, it also exacerbates decades of poverty, aid dependency, military dictatorship, unsustainable development, invasions, neoliberal structural adjustment policies, corruption, and many other intersecting forms of violence.  These political realities increase the multiple and complex forms of marginalization and social vulnerability women and their families will continue to face in the days, months, and years to come.

We have been in communication with Zeina Zaatari and Erika Rosas from Global Fund for Women.  Their contact from the Dominican Republic, Sergia Galvan, who is currently in Port-au-Prince, reported last Friday that the situation is catastrophic and, at that point, there was no infrastructure by which humanitarian aid could be distributed.

Right now, there are many people, organizations, and governmental agencies mobilized to provide immediate aid relief and rescue operations in Haiti.  However, there tends to be more readiness to donate supplies and money in the “immediate” time when things are very chaotic and before we know what the conditions are on the ground and have identified the long-term re-development needs as articulated by those most impacted.  The long-term vision is critical because, when the dust settles and the big international relief organizations have left, people’s lives will still be devastated, and the need to rebuild will still be there.

We are researching if and how we can develop an intentional political relationship with local women so we can help mobilize the INCITE! network to support just and sustainable development of a sovereign Haiti, both during the interim and the long term recovery process.

As many of us work to figure out appropriate strategies to support the people of Haiti, it’s important to note that the people most vulnerable–namely, women, LGBT folks, people with disabilities, incarcerated people, children, and elders–can experience a slower unfolding of specific crises that are consequences of the original disaster and the social conditions that preceded the disaster.

For example, women experience the most negative consequences of catastrophic events, particularly with regards to higher rates of injury and death, displacement, unemployment, increased incidents of HIV rates, sexual and domestic violence, increased poverty, and the disproportionate responsibility for caring for others.  This is especially true for women marginalized by race, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, health, ability, age, housing, and legal status.  Additionally, in times of crises and environmental emergencies, poor and marginalized women, who are least responsible for the horrific conditions in which they live, are often blamed for their poverty and become subjected to regulatory population control policies through family planning, poverty reduction, and so-called environmental protection programs.

So, given what we have learned from Hurricane Katrina and the disasters of war, occupation, neoliberal economic dominance, and neglect that continue to plague and pathologize many of our families and friends internationally, we would like to use this time to organize an effective and accountable response during this interim phase of the crisis.  Right now, we are exploring if we can activate the following plan:

  • Identify a contact with at least one specific local women’s organization/network in Haiti
  • Help mobilize the INCITE! network to organize a response and provide specific resources identified by women in Haiti
  • Work through INCITE! to sustain a productive and intentional transnational relationship with women in Haiti – this would be our long term solidarity work

We are talking with Zeina and Erika from Global Fund for Women to learn the landscape of women’s organizing in Haiti, how their local partners are doing at this point, and if/how we can work with local women directly.  We appreciate any feedback and ideas about this process, please get in touch at and

In the meantime, we urge INCITE! members/chapters/affiliates and the broader social justice community to:


  • Research Haiti’s amazing history of resistance, resiliency, and self-determination
  • Educate your community on the colonial history of deliberate impoverishment, control, debt, dependency, and neglect in Haiti
  • Educate yourself and your community on the intersections of gender, violence, and disaster vulnerabilities
  • Examine how the crises of disasters and gender-based violence are connected to the social, political, environmental, and economic issues you may work on
  • Analyze how the violence of disasters and colonial legacies (and realities) undermines the sovereignty and self-determination of a people
  • Identify patterns of how women, LGBT people, and people with disabilities are particularly impacted by disaster and conflict situations in, for example, Haiti, New Orleans, Palestine, Afghanistan, the Congo, the U.S./Mexico border, Native reservations


  • Convene organizing teach-ins on the history of Haiti, its historical connection to New Orleans, and the role the U.S. government has played in the underdevelopment of Haiti through invasion, occupation, and neoliberal supported policies
  • Reach out to Haitian immigrants and Haitian-Americans in your community who may need support
  • Support progressive democratic and human rights movements in Haiti and campaigns calling for debt cancelation and those to eliminate foreign aid restrictions that privilege US based contractors over Haitian labor
  • Support the capacity of the Haitian government to rebuild its institutional and physical infrastructure and provide sustainable and equitable public and relief services to its own people free of neoliberal mandates
  • Ensure that gendered perspectives are mainstreamed within humanitarian programs and long term recovery, both in recognizing the leadership roles and facilities of women and other marginalized communities to guide these processes and the specific vulnerabilities of marginalized communities in times of crisis and national emergency
  • Mobilize women of color & queer/LGBT people of color in your community to develop and share organizing strategies to address crises like these both abroad and here at home
  • Share organizing models and build skills to strengthen our grassroots organizing
  • Connect online using:

o    the INCITE! facebook page:
o    Stay tuned for other online tools…


Other groups to donate include:…

In Solidarity,

Women’s Health & Justice Initiative (WHJI), New Orleans
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence

List of GFW Partners:

  • Fondation TOYA [TOYA Foundation], Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Fondation TOYA works to raise the standard of living throughout the slum area of Cité Soleil through the empowerment of young women in the community. Members promote women’s entrepreneurship through  a micro-finance structure that facilitates access to credit for women in the informal sector. By focusing  on vulnerable young women who are unemployed and/or are heads of households,  Toya is ensuring that more Haitian women will be financially independent, have access to healthcare and in control of their destinies.
  • Association Femmes Soleil D’Haiti [Sun Women’s Association of Haiti], Cap-Haitien, Haiti: AFASDA was formed after the three-year coup in Haiti (1991-1994), because as the group states, “after the bloody coup…it was repression. No one could move. It was said that women couldn’t remain with their arms crossed. It was necessary to do something. We began with a little seed of reflection and that’s what became AFASDA.” AFASDA advances women’s rights by organizing campaigns for potable water and creating educational opportunities for street children and rural women.
  • Organisation Femmes Victimes de Solino [Organization of Women Victims of Solino] (OFVS), Solino: OFVS works with women of the Solino slum who have been victims of violence. Because of social unrest and the proliferation of armed gangs, many women are unable to earn a living.. The majority of the group’s members are single mothers, 90 percent of them affected by violence.. OFSV notes, “The majority of the women have lost all their business activities, and were forced to pay a ransom daily to the heads of gangs that took over the area so as not to be attacked again…the women have been victims of theft, burglary, and rape.”  OFVS provides counseling to violence survivors, financial aid to restart businesses, and legal aid to seek redress for the crimes committed against them.
  • Kodinasyon Solidarité Fanm Djanm Sid, KOSOFADS [Dynamic Women of the South Solidarity Network] (KOSOFADS) Les Cayes, Haiti: KOSOFADS promotes women’s economic independence, access to health care, and the eradication of domestic violence. The association brings poor women together in workshops, during which participants are encouraged to discuss women’s rights violations and devise strategies to resolve the abuse.  KOSOFADS also produces radio and television programs that focus on women’s rights issues.
  • Mouvman Peyizan Papay/Fanm MPP (Women of the Peasant Movement of Papay), Pètion Ville, Haiti: Emerging from the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP), Fanm MPP was created in 1980 to  “concentrate on understanding women’s unique development needs, advancing women’s rights and empowering women to participate in their own development.” One of the group’s current projects is  “Engaging Women in Holistic Health and Environmental Protection” project where women are taught to install family and community composting latrines, family cisterns so families for clean water for household use as well as plant fruits and vegetables for their families.

Women’s Health & Justice Initiative
P.O. BOX 51325
New Orleans, LA 70151

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
PO Box 226
Redmond, WA 98073

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