A Haitian proverb suggests that the country has long been a sliding land, a site of uncertainty and chronic catastrophe. On January 12, 2010, Haiti collapsed suddenly into sudden, telegenic disaster when a devastating earthquake hit its capital, Port-au-Prince, killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying much of the city. The disaster both gave rise to an unprecedented urban displacement crisis, and engendered the promise of humanitarian and reconstruction aid and a flow of moral sentiment. Yet the earthquake and its aftermath were but the most striking manifestations of centuries-long patterns of vulnerability, life under an aid economy, and displacement. Even before the earthquake, Haiti was infamously known as the “republic of NGOs”, while the history of slavery, uprooting, revolution, internal migration, and exile shaped Haitian people’s conceptions of home and community.
Despite – and because of – Haiti’s long history of foreign intervention and the initial appeal to “save Haiti” in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, the post-disaster humanitarian effort has been regarded by Haitians, non-Haitian aid workers, and the media alike as an unequivocal failure. This work examines the lived experiences of Haitian people (including aid beneficiaries and those who did not receive aid) and expatriate aid providers alike to provide a nuanced, personal, behind-the-scenes perspective on a well-known, highly publicized disaster in a long- misrepresented and sensationalized land. It also presents an analysis of the structural limitations and personal obligations experienced by Haitian and non-Haitian actors operating within a complicated aid economy. This work is ultimately about everyday responses to and ways of speaking about exceptional conditions. Amid suffering, loss, and sudden and chronic disaster, everyday life endures in Haiti, however unrepresented by the media and aid organizations. Haitian people depend on everyday practices, ordinary acts of cooperation, compassion and community, and humor to survive, cope with, and comment on everything from the initial moment of disaster to long-term displacement, loss and grief, the structures, limits, and failures of international aid, and death itself.