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I have been an elementary and secondary school teacher and administrator. Currently, I am a faculty member in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. My M.Ed. and Ph.D. had a focus on the educational and linguistic experiences of children who moved from other countries to Canada.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

What does it mean to be a fragile state? Reflections on Hurricane Matthew and Haiti

Haitians are discovering the full impact of Hurricane Matthew 48 hours after it hit the western part of Haiti. There is plenty of media coverage of the hurricane; this BBC report is one of the best I have seen (click here to read).

The preparation for the hurricane, the immediate impact, and the recovery have reminded me of why Haiti is considered one of the world's most fragile countries (click here to read more about the 2015 Fragile States Index).

Preparation: Efforts were made to communicate to people about the coming hurricane. Beyond warnings made on the radio, messengers were also dispatched on motorcycles to communicate the approaching danger. Social media was also extensively used. The lack of a coherent emergency notification system led to the most vulnerable populations - those who live in poverty and/or in remote areas - being the least likely to be informed of the impending disaster.

Impact: The deforestation that has occurred in Haiti for decades led to an increased likelihood of mud slides and flooding. Bridges, roads, and other infrastructure were washed out, essentially cutting off the western part of Haiti. People who lived in river beds and valleys, who are often some of the poorest of the Haitian population, were particularly vulnerable to the mud slides and flooding. During the time that the hurricane hit western Haiti, there was often no or limited communication.

Recovery: As I followed news reports and social media, it was clear that there was very limited police or government presence in the immediate aftermath of the storm. People were left to fend for themselves. The US navy sent a ship. Local and international NGOs sprung into action. But where was the Haitian government in all of this? Its major announcement seemed to be the delaying of the elections that were scheduled for this Sunday. Meanwhile, thousands are homeless and the risk of disease (such as cholera) is escalating by the day.

Hurricanes impact both the rich and the poor. But, clearly it is the poor who are at most risk and who suffer the greatest. In fragile states such as Haiti, the "evidence of fragility" can be seen in easily destroyed infrastructure and weak government systems. However, the real evidence of fragility is the magnified effects of a disaster on the poor and marginalized.

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