On the Role of History and Social Science in Policy

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By Kiran Jayaram, Visiting Focus Blogger 

Five days after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I smuggled myself onto a bus chartered by the Dominican government, and for the next two weeks, I assisted the relief efforts in Haiti by working with the Cruz Roja Dominicana (CRD).  Indeed, the Dominican government and non-state actors in the Dominican Republic played important roles in the immediate aftermath, as I will discuss below, but some of the good intentions were undermined by existing social dynamics.  Policy initiatives, especially during disasters, should be based upon solid understandings of history (lest we be doomed to repeat it) and of people’s experiences gained though social science.  Rather than depict angels and demons, I offer a sober sketch of the pre and post-earthquake dynamics of the island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, after which I mention a few details from my time as a relief worker.

Both in the past and presently, Haitians and Dominicans have co-existed amicably.  Slavery in the Dominican Republic was abolished while the country was under Haitian rule.  Though certain Dominican groups resented the so-called Haitian unification of the island from 1822-1844, others supported it due to potential trade benefits.  After the 2010 earthquake, President Fernández opened the border between the two countries to facilitate relief efforts.  The Dominican Red Cross was one of the first international groups operating after the earthquake, which I will discuss shortly.  In the contemporary era, Haiti represents the largest foreign market for Dominicans, accounting for at least 25% of all exports.  Additionally, Haitian students represent the largest group of foreign students in the Dominican Republic.  Furthermore, there have been festivals with both Haitian and Dominican musicians, sometimes in the same band.  Finally, there are countless children across the island who have a Haitian and a Dominican parent.  Yet despite this amity, animosity also exists.

Another version of island history, often popularized by xenophobic Dominican nationalists, emphasizes that the country declared its independence from Haiti.  This history includes brutalities perpetuated by the Haitian military during its “Occupation” of the neighboring country.  In the 20th century, such anti-Haitianism manifested itself in the 1937 Kout Kouto, where forces aligned with President Trujillo hacked to death thousands of Haitians and Haitian Dominicans.  During the first few years of the 21st century, multiple examples of vigilantism occurred, including the beheading of Carlos Nérilus by Dominican mob in 2009.  After the earthquake, it was widely understood that many Dominicans used the pretext of a cholera threat to antagonize Haitians, and even some recovery efforts were tainted with anti-Haitian bias.  As I write, details are emerging about how a Haitian in Juan Dolio who was legally in the Dominican Republic died after Dominican immigration agents beat him during an immigration sweep.  Sometimes, it appears that Hispaniola is a 200-year-old cockfight.

My two weeks working with the CRD revealed how both of the above dynamics not only exist, but also may co-exist.  While I was in one of the earliest groups of international rescue and relief workers to arrive, I was surprised to see Dominicans already present when I arrived at the Societé Nationale des Parcs Industriels (SONAPI) factory lot, where the CRD was based.  Clearly, their responsiveness was to be commended.  Over the next few days, more CRD workers showed up, including some Haitians who were working or studying in the Dominican Republic.  Whether loading or unloading trucks with provisions, distributing to neighborhoods, picking up CRD workers’ meals from the mobile kitchens sent by the Dominican government, or tidying up our camp each morning, we all worked together.  However, along with this apparent celestial harmony was an air of something less than benign.  There were whispers by some Dominican workers of the “rat-eating Haitians” in the world beyond our UN-protected camp.  Also, while waiting for breakfast every morning, Haitian CRD workers were tacitly relegated to the status of the primary garbage collectors for the entire camp, as Dominicans picked up only what was within their reach.  While a fuller explanation of these anecdotes and Haitian-Dominican Relations is beyond the scope of this blog, my post-earthquake relief work underscores how, as Bob Marley sang, “your worst enemy may be your best friend, and your best friend, your worst enemy.”

With such complicated relations, policy-makers and those engaged directly with people in Hispaniola must consider how their interventions contribute to either building back better or burning bridges.  Anyone working on the island who is worth their salt (or perhaps more apropos, sugar) knows of the sins of omission and neutrality.  We must allow social and political histories along with solid social science data based in people’s experience to inform our activities.  Of course, such an approach is only warranted if we want to effect change, not only in Haiti, but also across Hispaniola.

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