This article was originally published on July 26, 2010.

In late October 1998, Hurricane Mitch swept out of the north and smashed directly into Honduras.

Torrential rains deforested hills and caused landslides that buried villages. Two dams exploded, filling the downtown of the capital, Tegucigalpa, with eighteen feet of mud. The amount of damage was unprecedented in the nation’s history. Similarly, the 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, damaged or destroyed up to ninety percent of the buildings in some parts of Port-au-Prince and left much of that capital city uninhabitable. Millions of Haitians were displaced, and hundreds of thousands would lose their lives.

Yet, Honduras’s recovery illustrates for Haiti that within tragedy may lie opportunity. In my recent dissertation investigation of seven new post-Mitch communities, I found three key issues that shaped their development trajectory—cultural context, disaster survivor reactions, and international non-governmental organization (INGO)/community roles. This essay describes how the successes and failures of community development projects in Honduras can guide the long and slow development process in Haiti.

A tent city, Haiti. Photo: Ryan Alaniz

Cultural context

Development leaders must plunge themselves into the history and life of Haiti to find those cultural characteristics that can be built upon and those that should be challenged. Understanding cultural characteristics is critical as they can significantly influence social health variables (such as unity, participation, and social capital). One of many examples is the effect of religion on community development. In Honduras there are two locales where the Catholic Church was able to unite a new post-Mitch community through shared values and beliefs that promote trust among residents, even those who may not be Catholic. In Haiti, however, religion has had less of a bonding effect. According to most reports, more than half the country ascribes to Vodou, an amalgam of West African, Roman Catholic, and indigenous beliefs. Though there are many positive messages in Vodou that could promote unity, the religion has been said to have a different meaning for every individual and may even divide people based on social class. Development leaders would do better looking for other sources of solidarity to build community social health in Haiti.

What Haitians may lack in religious unity they make up for in a historical spirit of helping one another. Scholars have noted that after the earthquake Haitians came together, rich and poor alike, to assist their fellow citizens. In a recent talk at the Social Science Research Council, William O’Neill, who has in the past led the Legal Department of the joint United Nations and Organization of American States (UN/OAS) International Civilian Mission in Haiti (MICIVIH), described how Haitians were able to organize to build their own temporary hospitals for foreign doctors who came in to help. He attributes this unity to kombit, or the social memory of the way Haitians have come together to help and protect one another historically. Appealing to kombit, then, rather than to religious practices and institutions, may be the better way for development leaders to proceed in Haiti—reminding us that deep understanding of particular cultures is a prerequisite to effective mobilization of cultural characteristics to enhance community social health.

Disaster Survivor Reactions: Victims vs. Agents

Edwidge Danticat, the famed Haitian poet and 2009 Genius Grant winner, recently noted, “Our love for Haiti had not changed [after the earthquake]—in fact, it had even become deeper—but Haiti itself had changed. From a distance, you don’t recognize yourself because everything that shaped you is in rubble.” What makes post-disaster development different from other types of community development is not only the tragedy of the situation but also how the disaster event can open minds to new possibilities. After such a break in the status quo, survivors have various reactions to their new world, moving from helplessness and familial entrenchment to empowerment to work for a better future. On the one hand, some people feel helpless in the face of overwhelming devastation. They lose a sense of self and purpose and come to believe that they are victims. This self-perception has been found to lead to greater dependency and apathy as community members feel powerless and therefore rely on others for basic necessities, which may be supported by relief agencies continually doling out aid.

In post-Mitch Honduras, I found a victim mentality to be common to both residents and community leaders. When a problem arose with the water, a road, or a school, their first thought was to ask the partner INGO to fix it for them. Even leaders felt no sense of agency to actually fulfill the needs of the community without external help. In post-earthquake Haiti, a victim mentality appears to be equally prevalent. During a conversation with Marie Claude Bayard (ex-minister of commerce, 2005) on May 31, 2010, in Jacmel, Haiti, she noted that there are some tent-city residents who have been waiting since the earthquake to see what the INGOs will do. They do not want to start a project or try to organize because they believe—and with good reason—that the international organizations will soon swoop in and build them schools, houses, a water system, etc., reinforcing a victim mentality. In a post-disaster setting, relief efforts must avoid reinforcing this victim mentality by moving quickly from donations of goods and services to work-for-food programs, promotion of citizen empowerment, and resident involvement in decision-making processes, capacity-building classes, and so forth.

On the other hand, some Honduran residents with the help of INGOs were able to view the disaster as an opportunity. The shock of Mitch shook up the “normal way of doing things” and gave some hope that the future could be different with the help of foreign organizations. One particular INGO took advantage of this moment and implemented a process of education and empowerment for future community residents. The organization’s social workers encouraged a new value system with the goal of creating a “new Honduran citizen” and building a “model community.” The process took years, money, and patience but in the end created one of the healthiest (not just post-Mitch) communities in the country.

Although most people are somewhere between the extremes of victim and agent, it is important for INGOs and community leaders to encourage survivor agency. To this end, preliminary evidence suggests that new communities need extra support and structure in the initial years. Indeed, I have found that the most successful communities have been those who received high amounts of social and political support in the beginning that was later tapered off over time to avoid dependency.

INGO/community roles

Soon after the earthquake, the Haitian sociologist Laennec Hurbon noted, “It is what I call year zero, a moment when everything begins: there is a before and an after.” Hurbon is correct—Haiti will have an after, but what that looks like depends as much on international organizations as on Haitians themselves.

How Haiti will be rebuilt, by whom, and under what development philosophies are all important questions. There is no doubt that Haiti will be worse off than before without the help, expertise, and funds of foreign nations and INGOs. As can be seen above, the pitfalls and possibilities of development are substantial, and efforts must take into account the cultural context and victimhood or agency of survivors. However, the role that INGOs take in the community development process is critically important as well. The INGO development agenda and time frame and their influence within the community will set the process rolling along a particular path-dependent trajectory.

A comparison of two new post-Mitch communities in Honduras will help clarify this point. Though the communities started similarly—members had roughly comparable socio-economic statuses and demographics, the communities were constructed with similar infrastructure (waterworks, roads, housing styles, a clinic, soccer fields) and built in the same valley within ten miles of each other—long-term settlement has been remarkably different. One thrives economically, sustains a low crime rate, and maintains high civic participation. There is a general sense of well-being and safety for vulnerable populations. In contrast, fear, crime, and other social ills, such as drug and alcohol abuse, plague the other community.

A post-Mitch community. Photo: Ryan Alaniz

While there are multiple reasons for the different trajectories, one of the most significant influences on development in both cases was the INGO presence. In the now thriving community, the organization built the houses but then went on to partner with the community for over ten years, helping to resolve problems and maintain some social control. The INGO in the other community built the houses, moved survivors in, and then quickly left for another project. In the organization’s place entered a major drug-trafficking gang, who created order through fear and forced residents to pay a “war tax” for living in the community. Along with other cases this evidence suggests that relocating vulnerable disaster survivors to a safe environment is not enough. Without some structure and social guidance in community building, survivors may not have the capacity to defend their community against negative external influen ces. In short, if new communities are to be successful they will need long-term committed organizations to walk with them (without creating dependency) until they can walk on their own.


To conclude, Haiti—like Honduras before it—faces what can seem to be insurmountable challenges in its efforts to develop and to overcome the devastation caused by a natural disaster. As one French INGO employee working in Cité Soleil explained to me, “The boat is lost. It is the individuals, the children, the small successes that make this work worthwhile.” Yet, I am not that pessimistic. Although post-Mitch Honduras and its capital Tegucigalpa are not shining examples of social health, there are very healthy new communities that were developed in partnership with INGOs. Indeed, in my surveys of seven of these communities, the vast majority of residents note that their lives are as good as or better than they were before the hurricane. In one interview I conducted, an older woman stressed, “Thank God for Mitch. Without Mitch I would never have my own home and I would not be able to go out at night.” It is my hope that by addressing cultural context, disaster survivor reactions, and INGO/community roles, someday Haitians may see the earthquake as a rebirth from tragedy rather than a disaster that broke their nation’s spirit.