The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Lessons from the Haiti Earthquake: Protecting Small States

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on February 5, 2010
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By Alan Chong

Alan Chong

WITH A population of 10 million and a territorial size of 27,750 square kilometres, Haiti qualifies as a quintessential small state. It is also representative of a small state that has been repeatedly traumatised by a history of anti-colonial struggle, multiple missteps in domestic governance, and the ravages of tropical storms, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. The quake that struck on 12 January 2010 should not only call the world’s attention to a calamitous death toll in excess of 100,000. It is also a lesson in the omissions of governance as well as in how the international community should invest in building a rapid reaction disaster corps on the same level of priority that one would accord politico-military crises.

For nearly four decades, the small state lobby in the Commonwealth had articulated the profile of trauma for small states. Size did matter to the nature of government and internal political dissension. When various groups across the political spectrum cannot cooperate, and ordinary citizens are socially atomised, a civil war will wind a bloody path with mounting casualties within a confined territory. Likewise, size matters when non-traditional security threats posed by Mother Nature in the form of earthquakes and hurricanes strike.

The lack of strategic depth for the population’s refuge, or for the dissipation of the oncoming forces of nature, produces an equally horrendous outcome for the population. The Commonwealth reports by the small state lobby have consistently argued for both the international community as well as small state populations to foster good governance to mitigate crises when they occur. The scale of Haiti’s destruction should not obscure the equally important drama of the political vacuum precipitated by the utter breakdown of law and order. Reports filed by various international news agencies confirmed that the survivors of the quake had to confront the uncertainties of food delivery, the absence of a central information clearing authority, and the visible absence of police forces.

A poor neighbourhood shows the damage after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti just before 5 pm, January 12, 2010.

A few voices blamed the Haitian president, Rene Preval, for being non-existent during his people’s hour of need. Concurrently, it was the US military that served as de facto government by securing the airport for aid deliveries that, in any case, quickly degenerated into bottlenecks without pre-existing organisations in place to distribute the materiel efficiently. The sceptic might object that the scale of the disaster was simply overwhelming for any aid effort to cope. But it must surely be acknowledged that small states must prepare organisationally for the contingency of disaster in confined spaces. A rehearsed civil defence plan is indispensable as a first line of defence for any small state.

Small states, as last December’s inconclusive environmental summit in Copenhagen has shown, must still rely in great measure on the magnanimity of the rest of the international community in tackling humanitarian crises arising from natural disasters. One spokesperson of the Alliance of Small Island States had tellingly commented that nobody in their right mind would want to leave their homeland as ‘environmental refugees’. This was not just a technical point but also an emotional one. The nation-states that enjoy large strategic depth in relative terms ought to practise empathy towards their territorially less well-endowed brethren. This is because of the fact of natural geographic interdependence. An earthquake can generate tsunamis that spiral in all directions from the epicentre. No territorial boundary within range of nature’s wrath will be spared. It is thus laudable that countries as diverse as Israel, China, South Korea, Japan, Australia and the United States have been among the first to dispatch recovery and humanitarian teams to Haiti.

In sum, any natural calamity afflicting small states serves as a huge lesson in contingency planning for a world facing increased environmental threats.

Alan Chong is Associate Professor of International Relations at the S. Rajaratanam School of International Studies (RSIS), NanyangTechnologicalUniversity.

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