The Haiti earthquake -how can geography teachers respond?

In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, it is useful to think about how schools and geography teachers might respond. I have learned of a number of schools where students have made a cash donation in return for not wearing school uniform (apparently, when it was announced in assembly that it was non-uniform day, everyone cheered, which feels wrong).  In many ways, this reflects the surge of sympathy and humanitarian concern that many of us feel, and surely this is not to be discouraged?

However, I cannot help thinking about a comment made by the geographer Lakosh Yapa in 1996 that one of the effects of the exposure of students to the theme of development is that they come to ‘know’ that Bangladeshi’s or African lives in ‘under-developed’ countries. They come to know that they ‘rank’ higher. And this is surely the message that is taught through the media coverage of the Haiti earthquake. ‘They’ are unfortunate, ‘we’ are lucky. ‘They’ need our help, and if there’s not been much success in getting food and water to the Haitian people, at least there are images of brave rescue teams digging survivors out of the rubble.

As geography teachers, it is important to produce ‘frameworks’ or ‘contexts’ which can help students to make sense of events such as the Haiti earthquake. The frameworks that are most readily available are those provided by the news media. However, as Simon Cottle has argued in his book Global Crisis Reporting these events are not neutral representations of reality, but are ‘mediatized’ (that is, constructed through the media). Different ‘disasters’ are mediatized in different ways. For instance, the South Asian tsunami of 2004, after the initial focus on the scale of the disaster, became a story of how a global community was coming together to show its solidarity, with national governments competing with one another to make the boldest gestures. Media coverage was less about the disaster than the need to present the sense that we are all part of ‘one world’. The mediatization of Hurricane Katrina was very different. Newspapers quickly shifted from the disaster itself to the social control issues that followed in its wake. New Orleans was portayed as a city at the mercy of gangs of lawless black males who were looting homes and businesses. The news reporting was similar to that of riot reporting. In both cases, the media shaped ‘geographical understanding’, and one of the tasks for geography teachers is to try to assess the ‘framing’ of events.

So what’s happened in the wake of the Haiti earthquake? As I said earlier, its hard to get anything other than the sense that Haiti has become a lawless and  ‘anarchic’ society, reliant on Western aid. Indeed, the failure in the first week to get essential supplies of food and water into the country was explained in terms of the question of lack of security – US troops were on their way to ‘secure’ the country and then aid could get underway. There has been little sense of Haitians doing things for themselves and getting their lives and communities back together, even though there were the occasional images of markets selling food and banks re-opening.

Invariably, as the weeks go by, media coverage of the event will fade, but the question of the ‘geographies of reconstruction’  is of equal importance. In her book The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein talked about the idea of ‘disaster capitalism’ or the way that the demolition (or ‘creative destruction’) of places as the result of disasters opens the door for powerful corporations to come in and ‘develop’ countries on models of ‘neo-liberal capitalism’. In a slightly more ‘academic’ vein Kevin Rozario’s The Culture of Calamity, argues that disasters such as earthquakes and floods in the USA became occasions where social values and trajectories were reassessed, often leading to new rounds of capital growth. Maybe the presence of US troops in Haiti can be seen as the pre-runner to this process of development?

These ideas and concepts take geography teachers way beyond the ‘comparison between MEDCs and LEDCs’ towards questioning the very concepts of ‘interdependence’ and ‘development’, and get someway towards providing examples of what we mean by the shift from ‘polite’ to ‘impolite’ geographies.

5 Responses to “The Haiti earthquake -how can geography teachers respond?”

  1. 1 Ed Darrell January 29, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Nice stuff. Do you have links to some of the books you recommend? I suspect some are England-only titles — but I hadn’t heard of Culture of Calamity, and it sounds like a good title to supplement my history courses.

    • 2 DJ January 29, 2010 at 3:12 pm

      Hi Ed
      The books mentioned are:

      S. Cottle (2009) Global Crisis Reporting: Journalism in the global age. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
      K. Rozario (2007) The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the making of modern America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  2. 3 Dr Joseph Kerski March 1, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Something else that can be integrated into geography classrooms in light of the events over the weekend in Chile, and comparing it to the Haiti Jan 2010 earthquake, is to discuss the statement, “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.” At the moment, the M 8.8 earthquake in Chile is tied as the fifth-largest earthquake recorded by seismographs ( (list has yet to be updated) and was 500 times stronger than the M 7.0 earthquake in Haiti. The Chile death toll of 700 people vs at least 230,000 in Haiti comes partly down to building construction. Chile has experienced large earthquakes (the biggest, M 9.5 in 1960); and as a result, most buildings have been constructed to good earthquake-resistant standards. The construction in Haiti was nowhere near this quality. But also, there were no recent large earthquakes in Haiti. Discuss with your students: Why is this so? Does Haiti have the capital to build resistant buildings in the future?

    See BBC Story:

    You could use the data and lesson I posted to investigate Haiti’s earthquake in a GIS environment on:

  3. 4 kevincooper777 March 6, 2010 at 8:53 pm


  1. 1 Geography education vs. geography learning « Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub Trackback on January 29, 2010 at 12:55 pm

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