This post originally appeared as part of the Data Values Digest, a weekly update with thought-provoking reflections on current events. Subscribe to it here.
Lately, it’s felt like a season of climate news, with destructive wildfires across the U.S., Europe, and South Africa, plus flooding and storms around the world. Amidst this chaos, another big picture story has fallen through the cracks. On August 14, Haiti faced a 7.2 magnitude earthquake—stronger than the infamous 2010 earthquake, and yet this catastrophic event has faded from news and conversations. For those of us in the international data for development community, Haiti is a warning: Eleven years after the 2010 earthquake, there’s still a prevailing sense that Haiti isn’t prepared to make evidence-based decisions in the face of recurring natural disasters. Why does this perception persist and to what extent is it true?
Some reasons are structural: The international aid community has failed to prioritize funding local Haitian organizations and struggled to acknowledge anti-black and racist practices that limit impact. Other causes are situational, like political instability and the shocking assassination of the country’s president. But beyond these challenges lies something deeper:
Haiti is a bellwether for how the development community resists acknowledging the nuanced relationship between data, information, and power (a.k.a. “data equity”) to champion and build on strategies driven and adapted by Haitians, for Haitians.
The humanitarian response to the August earthquake is occurring in a different context from the one in 2010. Haitians have learned a lot the hard way in the years since, and many do not want a repeat of the one cent for every donated aid dollar the country received in the wake of the last quake. Over the past decade, Haitians have set up their own organizations, local emergency response systems, and funding pathways to channel support to where community members know it’s most needed.
Yet Haitian ownership in collecting emergency data points and aligning resources with community capacity and needs has been overshadowed—whether on purpose or accidentally—by the same, stale narrative of Haiti as a failing state whose people are powerless to help themselves. But Haiti is more than a disaster story. Haitians have knowledge to share about how they collect information, disseminate resources, and analyze needs in difficult-to-reach areas in the wake of natural disasters. There’s a great example of a community seismology network that has sprung up in remote parts of Haiti, managed by a new generation of Haitian seismologists to incorporate data from people in homes and schools far from official government seismology centers. Haiti needs more of this. So do other communities in disaster-prone areas around the world.
In fact, we should all learn from this example—especially as COVID-19 and the changing climate have highlighted the need for data systems to be built around and accessible to local communities (whether or not aid workers can “parachute in”). As a global community, we’re adamant about the need for better data on climate, virtue signaling by emphasizing climate change effects on the most vulnerable, particularly in the Global South. But we consistently disregard and ignore indigenous knowledge in collection, analysis, and use of data in disaster preparedness strategies. From following the lead of Native Americans in structured burning to control California wildfires, to incorporating existing community networks to collect village-level data in Indonesia, participatory models already abound. It’s our choice whether to look to them when structuring our work with a data equity lens. At minimum, we must avoid getting sucked into easy narratives of Haiti as a politically failed state. We still need to do better, and Haitians’ examples can help show us the way.