Immediately after the devastating earthquake in Haiti one year ago left some 1.3 million people homeless, the crème-de-la-crème of the
world’s celebrities came out in full force to raise money for the
country and its people in need.
One charity event followed after another. Hollywood actress Sandra
Bullock and other big names donated US$1 million each to
relief organizations that promptly went to the island. Haitian-born
rapper Wyclef Jean filed for candidacy in the presidential election,
George Clooney, the Hollywood actor who has been among the most committed,
arranged the Hope for Haiti Now telethon, where famous friends
like Drew Barrymore and Leonardo DiCaprio spoke with ordinary
Americans over the phone while raising about US$66 million.
“We want to show the people of Haiti that the world pays attention to what is now happening,” Clooney said at the time.
“It is a great benefit when famous people commit themselves to a
problem such as this,” says Ian Bray from charity organization Oxfam,
which received millions of dollars from Clooney’s projects.
Bray believes celebrities can be an effective way to increase awareness of a problem.
“The media can much more easily tell the story of someone people know
of and the media will always be interested in famous people. And if
people know about a crisis happening, it increases our chances of doing
something for the human suffering,” says Ian Bray.
Today, 12 months on from the quake, things are much quieter in the
celebrity world and few talk about the suffering of Haitians. Oxfam
uses nearly $100 million dollars over three years on their emergency
work in Haiti, contributing to the rebuilding of infrastructure.
“It would have been impossible for Haiti to do that without foreign aid,” says Bray.
At the same time, major criticism of the relief effort is emerging. All
the emergency aid makes it difficult for the Haitian people to plan for
their country to function in in the long term, claim critics who ask "What will happen when the eyes of the celebrity world turn away?"
“Haiti needs genuine sovereignty and empowerment by their own people
far more than it needs foreign charity and a few stunts by passing
celebs," says Professor Peter Hallward, a philosopher of contemporary
politics from London's Kingston University.
His 2007 book Damming the Flood tells of how the Haitian people have long fought for democracy under the influence of foreign
interests and a small but very wealthy and powerful, privileged elite.
In the work, Hallward calls Haiti “the republic of NGOs,” asserting
that non-governmental organizations – and their large donors - are the
ones in charge of the country, not the Haitian people.
“The great powers that rule the world have played a primarily
destructive role in Haiti,” he says. Hallward further maintains that NGOs have benefited from Haiti’s misfortune. The aid they are giving
is in many ways short-termed, he claims, like giving food instead of
trying to revive the local agriculture.
But NGOs have another point of view. Haiti would not stand a chance
without substantial foreign aid, says Oxfam’s Bray. The charity has
helped 10,000 families from rural areas around Port-au-Prince with
distributing locally grown food such as rice and jams. They also give
cash grants to people who ran small businesses before the earthquake
and want to restart them. Bray believes this has without a doubt
created long-term employment.
“But what is important now is that the Haitian government comes up with
a plan for what to do and what priorities to have,” he says.