The International Maritime Organization and Piracy in West Africa

The International Maritime Organization and Piracy in West Africa

by Effie Seiti

Definition and the Legal Framework

‘’In the actual globalized world, the security of the oceans is the paramount of the humanity’’[1]. Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships are one of the contemporary challenges of the maritime industry.  Both of them cause serious problems in ‘’smooth, secure unimpeded flow of maritime traffic through sea lanes, straits, ports and transit corridors’’.

Based on the article 102 of the UNCLOS 1982 and Resolution A.1025(26) (Annex, paragraph 2.2) on IMO’s Code of Practice for the Investigation of the Crimes of Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ship respectively, piracy and armed robbery in general terms are illegal acts, committed for private ends. Additionally, according to the International Maritime Organization, piracy and armed robbery are a global problem which poses urgent cooperation in order to be eradicated.

The contribution of IMO in the efforts of ensuring safe navigation in affected areas is more than crucial. The International Maritime Organization in order to handle and mitigate these threats has developed regulations and guidance (as  Best Management Practices) through the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) and with the contribution of Organization Facilitation Committee (OFC) and Legal Committee (LC).

The establishment of maritime security cannot be succeeded if there is not an effective cooperation with regional international actors. As the Secretary General of IMO mentioned in the European Coast Functions Forum 2014 which took place in Civitavecchia, Italy, 23 September 2014, “IMO stands ready to collaborate and give its support to all those who can play an active part In addressing this dreadful situation’’. The actors that were mentioned were UNODC, Interpol, the African Union, the European Union, and the European Commission, as well as bodies such as the Economic Commissions for Africa and for Europe.  

Affected Areas

Based on IMO’s annual report 2011 regarding the acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships, twenty first century prone areas of maritime piracy and armed robbery against ships are identified to be in 10 different regions of the world namely:

  • East Africa
  • Indian Ocean
  • West Africa
  • Arabian Sea
  • Malacca Strait
  • South China Sea
  • Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Mediterranean Sea
  • North Atlantic
  • regions that are classified “Others”

Regarding “others’’ in these regions the occurrence of the two crimes are at a very low rate or even rare. Moreover, incidents such as the hijacking of “M/V Arctic Sea’’ at the Baltic sea in 2009, can prove that even at one of the most secure maritime space in the world can be affected by maritime piracy and armed robbery against ships. 

Countering West Africa-based Piracy 

The exacerbation of this phenomenon occurs off the coast of Somalia, the Gulf of Aden and the wider Western Indian Ocean since 2005 to today. The two types of criminal activities which can be identified as piracy in West Africa are ‘hijack for cargo theft’ and ‘kidnap fro ransom’.

Few years ago the most dangerous spot for piracy attacks was off the coast of Somalia, but the incidents there have fallen dramatically. Nowadays, the most dangerous piracy spot in the world is the Gulf of Guinea. As mentioned in  the Economist’s article in the Gulf of Guinea 19% of piracy attacks worldwide have been recorded by the International Maritime Bureau.

Africa generally is one of the world’s top piracy spot as such IMO has focused on the coast of Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden and the wider Indian Ocean after these developments. These efforts can be illustrated by a strategy that the organization is implementing, in order to establish the maritime security in these areas which are affect by the piracy attacks and armed robbery against ships and always complying with region’s maritime security agreements.

IMO in cooperation with shipping industries has taken several anti-piracy measures which have contributed effectively in the mitigation of this phenomenon. Moreover the organization provides assistance to national and regional actors so that they create their own measures for tackling the piracy and other phenomena which pose a threat for maritime security.

The ‘Code of Conduct concerning the Repression of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden’ (Djibouti Code of Conduct) and the case of the ‘Code of Conduct concerning the repression of piracy, armed robbery against ships, and illicit maritime activity in west and central Africa  in the Gulf of Guinea region of West Africa’ are significant examples of the cooperation between the countries around the western Indian Ocean in order with IMO’s contribution to manage and mitigate the piracy and armed robbery against ships in this region.

 Another important initiative is the IMO/MOWCA Sub-regional Coastguard Network. This initiative approved by the IMO/MOWCA Forum which was held in Senegal, in October 2006 and concerns the establishment of an integrated coastguard network and also supports the sub-regional cooperation and coordination in the provision of coastguard functions inclusive of maritime intelligence, surveillance, safety and security, protection of environment, and search and rescue.

Some Thoughts… 

It is clear that the international and regional actors are giving a battle in order to combat piracy attacks and armed robbery against ships. According to Judge and Professor Mr. Thomas Mensah, piracy takes place since the ancient times. Consequently, this phenomenon cannot be eliminated but what can be achieved is the efficient management of this threat or to minimize the impact of piracy and armed robbery against ships. Furthermore, another objective of these efforts made by the international, regional and local actors is to prevent illegal intervention in cases of any type may be. Individual assistance of international actors is not sufficient if there is no common will and national actors so limit the effect to a satisfactory level.

In addition, the strengthening of the cooperation between coastguards of Western Africa countries with the contribution of the international actors is crucial. The states of this region should cooperate and in the field of information sharing regarding shipping and attacks. Apart of the international and regional cooperation schemes for combating piracy and armed robbery against ships, as aforementioned, that the most important issue for each state is to take the lead in patrolling its own waters and limiting illegal activities. When a country is unable to deal with criminal networks, a significant example is Boko Haram militants, which are operating in its own territory, it is logical that it will not be able to cope with piracy attacks in its waters.

Local security forces should improve their equipment and their patrol vessels; in some cases for example the Master or CSO has contacted with local authorities but they were unwilling or unable to assist them due to the limited range of their vessels.

Another important thing regarding the ways piracy and armed robbery against ships can be tackled is the identification of the type of the threat. More specifically, stakeholders should realise how their vessels could be vulnerable in a potential piracy attack and to implement measures that could reduce the risk while still allowing shipping operations to continue.

All in all, as in any type of threat, the underlying cause of the problem should be identified. Each country individually should try to find what makes them vulnerable in such attacks and in cooperation with regional and international actors they should improve their vulnerable sectors. For instance, the political tolerance of the black market especially in Nigeria is a motivation for the pirates. Let’s not forget that the pirates are ‘the tip of iceberg that is a sophisticated organized crime network’.


[1] Jean Edmond Randrianantenaina,’’Maritime Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships: Exploring the Legal and the Operational Solutions. The case of Madagascar’’, The United Nations-Nippon Foundation Fellowship Programme 2012-2013, Division for Oceans Affairs and the Law of the Sea, Office of Legal Affairs, The United Nations, New York 2013

Effie Seiti was born and raised in Rhodes, Greece. She received her bachelor’s degree in the field of International Relations and Organizations (University of the Aegean, Rhodes, Greece 2009-2013) and earned a Master’s Degree with merit in Political, Economic and International Relations in the Mediterranean (University of the Aegean, Rhodes, Greece 2013-2015). She has participated in many workshops and conferences (as speaker and as organizer). She has also participated in 3 summer seminars, in Crete (Erasmus Intensive Programme, Governance and Security in Europe & Mediterranean), Istanbul (Global Politics Summer School Turkey 2014) and Rhodes (Tulane Law Summer Abroad, Scholarship as Aegean Institute Alumnus for the participation in Tulane Law School Summer Programme about Maritime Law, Law of the Sea & Ocean Management 2015). The highlight of her academic activities is her participation in simulations of regional and international organizations (Model United Nations) as a delegate and as a member of the board in Greece, France, UK and Romania among others. She is now working in a multinational corporation in Warsaw, Poland while she seeks for a PhD programme.

US Signals Concern for Kashmir Dispute – What Does It Mean?

US Signals Concern for Kashmir Dispute – What Does It Mean?

by Haifa Peerzada

A very significant development took place over the Kashmir issue, which can prove to be a game changer for India as well as Jammu and Kashmir. This longstanding dispute has been for the first time been introduced as a part of institutionalized US-Pakistan strategic dialogue. Sartaj Aziz and John Kerry met on 29th February, 2016 and came out with a Joint statement emphasizing on the importance of taking steps towards resolving the outstanding disputes in South Asia, including Kashmir. Kashmir dispute which is considered to be a bi-lateral issue by the international community and the United States are now showing growing concern over the escalating tensions between India and Pakistan. This eventful step by the US clearly shows its insecurity and fear over the impending instability in the South Asian region, underscored by the escalating tensions between India and Pakistan. With Pakistan seeking to internationalise the issue, India’s aggressive stand to not engage with pro-freedom factions in Kashmir and Kashmir’s internal deterioration has given room to Pakistan for engaging with the US on Kashmir issue. India needs to take note of it and get proactive about resolving the dispute.

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Military Efforts in the Mediterranean Basin

Military Efforts in the Mediterranean Basin

Image by German Navy photo by Photographer PO1OR-6 Alyssa Bier

Image by German Navy photo by Photographer PO1OR-6 Alyssa Bier

by Effie Seiti

The Progressive Globalization of the Mediterranean Security

The Mediterranean area, the so-called ‘crossroad of civilizations’, is considered to be a hot spot in the process of developing the international scene. Over the time, the events that took place in the Eastern Mediterranean region, affected either directly or indirectly the whole international arena. Regarding the term ‘gate of Middle East to Syria and Mediterranean area’, the region is thought to be a pole of attraction as well as field of constant competitiveness between major powers.   

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On Bombing Syria

On Bombing Syria

By Zenonas Tziarras

The United Kingdom and Germany have been the latest powers to join the war in Syria though Germany’s contribution will be in ground forces and aerial reconnaissance operations. The UK’s decision has stirred up a heated debate about whether this is the right line of action that should be followed from London, or any other country for that matter.

International bombing operations in Syria have been taking place at least since September 2014 in the context of the Western anti-ISIS “Coalition of the Willing” led by the United States. States like the U.S., France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Qatar, Germany and the UK are participating in one way or another in this coalition. On the other end, Russia and the Syrian regime are also conducting large scale military operations. (See map below)

zones in syria


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Russians and the “Alawistan”

Russians and the “Alawistan”

By Ioannis-Sotirios Ioannou

Source: The Institute for the Study of War

Source: The Institute for the Study of War

With the situation in Syria entering into a new abyss regarding the ongoing diplomatic game, things are starting to become clearer in terms of Russia’s active support to the Assad regime. The Kremlin, especially after the announcement of the Obama-Putin meeting at the United Nations, added an important diplomatic dimension to the issue with the aim of negotiating Assad’s stay in power. Yet at the same time, a closer look at the map shows that Russia did not go “all in” with Syria but rather sought to re-establish a strong sphere of influence. Russia’s sphere of influence is a prerequisite for the survival of Assad and is now focused on securing the heart (or “center of gravity”) of Assad’s regime: Latakia – the home of Alawites.

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Russia in Syria: Changing the Power Balances

Russia in Syria: Changing the Power Balances

By Zenonas Tziarras

Back in 2012 it was argued that Syria has become an arena for conflicting regional and international interests [1]. This reality is more salient today than any other time in the past. After reports that Turkey,[2] Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries of the region have mingled in Syria’s conflict through their support to militia groups, we saw the United States using Special Forces for raids into Syria. Not long after that we witnessed Russia moving military forces into Syria, particularly close to the city of Latakia, where a key air base is located, even as reports came out that China will send military advisers to Syria in order to help in the fight against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham). Most importantly, on September 30, Russia launched its first airstrikes against Jihadist groups in Syria.

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Shifting the Balance against ISIS, or Why Turkey Changed its Mind

Shifting the Balance against ISIS, or Why Turkey Changed its Mind

By Zenonas Tziarras

Source: Reuters

When the international anti-ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) coalition was formed back in September 2014, Turkey was thought to be a pivotal participant. However, the international initiative divided Turkey’s political scene which appeared reluctant to follow in the footsteps of its traditional ally, the United States (US). Even after October 2, 2014, when the Turkish parliament voted on a motion that would authorize the government to conduct operations in Syria and Iraq as well as provide Turkish soil and military bases for allied operations, Ankara kept resisting any kind of meaningful military engagement of ISIS. Not only that, but it seemed to be turning a blind eye on foreign fighters crossing into Syria through its borders.

Turkey’s controversial stance became more evident when on October 13, 2014, it denied reports that it had granted the US access to the Incirlik air base for military attacks against ISIS. In the midst of this indecisiveness and reports of Turkish support to ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria, Turkey has over the past months became a cause of concern for the international community and brought back memories from 2003, when Ankara denied the US access to Iraq through its soil. Today, after dramatic developments in the country and the region, Ankara took the long-awaited decision to allow the US to launch military strikes against ISIS from its soil and notably from the Incirlik air base which Americans have thus far been using only for humanitarian and logistical purposes. The question that remains is, why has Turkey resisted engaging ISIS earlier and what prompted it to change its mind?

Resisting Engagement

Perhaps the most important reason why Turkey avoided a direct confrontation with ISIS was the maintenance of its domestic security and stability. Its close proximity to Syria and Iraq as well as its geographically bridging position between continents made it a natural crossing and entry point into Syria and Iraq for ISIS recruits. At the same time, its predominantly Muslim population became an important recruitment tank and propaganda target group for ISIS. Within a short period of time from its appearance in the summer of 2014, ISIS managed to establish an organized and complex recruiting network in Istanbul and other cities.

Apart from recruits that were sent to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS, the result was the emergence of extremist clusters within Turkey itself that could conduct terrorist attacks at any time or retaliate had Turkey acquired a more active role in the anti-ISIS coalition. The same threat becomes increasingly salient because of the growing number of refugees – currently around two million people. Refugee camps can easily become safe havens for extremists that cross into Turkey as well as effective recruitment places.

Of course security concerns have not been the only causes behind Turkey’s delay. Virtually every domestic pressure group was against a military incursion into Syria, regardless of the political or military goal. Opposition political parties, business groups, and the public opinion, were all against a military escalation of the Syria and ISIS crisis; they did not want to see their country being engaged in a war. This was also one of the reasons why the Turkish incursion into Syria for the relocation of the Suleyman Shah tomb (a piece of Turkish sovereign land in Syria with historical importance) was so surgical and fast. Against this background, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) could not put their political power at risk by getting more involved in the anti-ISIS coalition, especially with the 2015 national elections around the corner.

An equally important reason that could explain Turkey’s stance was of strategic nature. Ankara’s staunch refusal to engage ISIS coincided with the fierce fighting between ISIS and the Kurds, particularly over Syria’s Kurdish-majority town of Kobani, at the Turkish-Syrian border. Because the US was not willing to grant Ankara’s conditions for participating in the coalition (i.e. a no-fly zone over Syria, a buffer zone inside Syria and the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad), it seems that Turkey supported, via its non-involvement, an all-against-all war of attrition thereby working toward weakening the Assad regime, ISIS and the Kurds.

Change of Course

Since then, Turkey has been taking certain half-measures, such as training (moderate Islamic) opposition groups, in an effort to appease both its Western partners and domestic opposition parties that have been blaming the government for supporting ISIS. It was not until mid to late July 2015 that Turkey made a decisive move against ISIS. Not only did it allow the US to use the Incirlik air base (see map below), but it also conducted anti-ISIS airstrikes in Syria even as it raided locations of suspected ISIS, Kurdish and leftist militants. This change in policy had a number of drivers.

Incirlink Directions

The Incirlik air base will prove to be a major asset in the US air operations against ISIS as it is much closer to the targets than other bases used thus far. This allows fighter jets to spend more time on the actual operation instead on travelling to or from the target as well as quicker operational reaction based on new intelligence.

To begin with the Kurdish issue, Turkey’s unwillingness to help the Kurds of Kobani against ISIS had a backlash against the government domestically as Kurdish protests erupted throughout the country. As such, the Kurdish peace process, and by extension Kurdish electoral support to the AKP, was put in danger as it was clearly reflected in the June 7, 2015 national elections where the pro-Kurdish party HDP got 13% of the votes for the first time in Turkish history. Soon after that, Turkey’s policy took another hit when Kurds won the battle for Kobani thus strengthening their presence along the Turkish-Syrian border – what is called Syrian or Western Kurdistan. The Kurdish victory meant that from now on Turkey should take (Syrian) Kurds seriously into account, for they constitute a significant regional factor that could well threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity as well.

From this perspective, and since ISIS failed to stop the Kurds, a change in strategy was imperative if Turkey wanted to prevent the consolidation of the Syrian Kurdistan. Its greater involvement in Syria may well be followed by the establishment of a buffer zone on the Turkish-Syria border (as was its initial condition for taking action) which would work as a buffer for both ISIS and the Kurds. Though we cannot know for sure, something like that could be a part of a give-and-take between Turkey and the US. On another note, it should be mentioned that the Turkish government is more justified and legitimized to take action at this juncture since its actions were taken right after an ISIS suicide attack in Turkey that killed 32 and wounded 104 people and the first cross-border exchange of fire between the Turkish military and ISIS. In this regard, it is no longer only in theory that ISIS constitutes a domestic national security threat.

Within this framework, the Turkish government’s decision to take action after these events also creates a “rally ‘round the flag” effect by which the government and specifically the President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gains popular support. To be sure, these developments are directly related with the domestic social, political and economic instability that emerged since early June due to the inability of the political parties to form a coalition government after the national elections. The country seems to be headed to snap elections where the AKP will need all the votes it can get to regain its parliamentary majority,

The next reason is related with the broader Middle East geopolitical environment, its balances of power and Turkey’s role within it. The recent deal between West’s P5+1 and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program is a highly significant development that will have a great impact on the international politics of the Middle East. It essentially seals the return of Iran to international affairs, which also means the strengthening of Iran and the increase of resources that it will be able to dedicate to the pursuit of its geopolitical goals. A side-effect of Iran’s empowerment would be the increase of Assad’s resilience. Moreover, Tehran has already claimed a central, if downplayed, role in the fight against ISIS. At the same time, Iran’s rival but West’s ally, Saudi Arabia, is becoming more assertive while, for the time being, its recent attempt to militarily counter the coup by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen seems to be successful.

In this light, Turkey’s change of course is also a response to the shifting balances of power in the region and to fears that it will lose its role and importance as a western ally and a pivotal state in the Middle East.

Epilogue – A New Paradigm?

Most of the drivers behind Turkey’s policy point to a rather defensive stance. Yet, it should be remembered that Turkey has been looking for a way to overthrow Assad since late 2011. The current conjuncture feels like the perfect storm of events that could push Turkey toward that revisionist and thus offensive goal. At the same time, it creates the necessary conditions on the domestic and international level for this policy change to be tolerated, if not accepted. Perhaps most importantly, it allows Turkey to mend fences with the US even as it takes advantage of its role and operations to accomplish its own goals. Because of the nature of this complex dynamic a new Turkey-US and Turkey-Iran friction in the near future is very likely, especially if Turkey’s efforts to overthrow Assad bear fruits.

This article was published in collaboration with The Europe Levant Observatory, Diplomatic Academy – University of Nicosia.

You can follow Zenonas on Twitter @ZenonasTziarras

Is the BRICS Bank an Alternative for Greece?

Is the BRICS Bank an Alternative for Greece?

By Konstantinos Myrodias and Panos Chatzinikolaou

Over the past few weeks speculations have been circulating over Greece’s potential accession to the New Development Bank established by the BRICS-Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Russia’s invitation to Greece to become a member of the BRICS bank comes in a delicate point for the latter, since its new leftist SYRIZA-led government is attempting to strike a deal with its European counterparts in order to avoid a potential bankruptcy that would have tremendous impact on the country and the Eurozone as a whole. Is Russia’s invitation to Greece just a mere coincidence? Have the BRICS decided to save Greece from collapsing, enhancing Eurozone’s sustainability? At a time like this, where West- Russia relations bring back Cold War memories, such an explanation seems to be a truly superficial one.

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Turkey and Saudis in Syria: Aligned Interests, Clashing Revisionisms

Turkey and Saudis in Syria: Aligned Interests, Clashing Revisionisms

by Zenonas Tziarras

In early May, 2015 it became known that Saudi Arabia and Turkey are supporting extremist Islamist groups in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. That Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others, have – mostly indirectly – been supporting Islamist groups is not news as similar reports have been emerging from time to time since 2011, if not earlier. But this policy with regard to the Syrian conflict became increasingly overt amidst growing instability and lack of Western commitment to Assad’s overthrow. According to The Independent and other media, Turkish and Saudi support focuses on the overarching jihadist group Jaish al-Fatah which includes al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra – a rival to both Assad and the self-styled “Islamic State,” also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham).

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Rolling-in ‘Technological Aid’ to Roll-out Remote Control: Post-earthquake Haiti and the West

Rolling-in ‘Technological Aid’ to Roll-out Remote Control: Post-earthquake Haiti and the West

by Ioana Cerasella Chis

Haiti and the Development-industrial complex

In a world organised and shaped by a colonial matrix of power (Mignolo 2007:455), events such as the Haitian Earthquake in 2010 underscore the processes at work within this matrix. One of the tools used to maintain developing countries’ dependency upon the West is through the development-industrial complex; its ‘developmentalist’ ideology has ‘taken several forms – evolutionism, modernisation theory, development thinking – which correlate with different epochs of western hegemony’ (Pieterse, cited by Braidotti et. al. 1994:20). Within the development-industrial complex and development studies’ framework, the reluctance of mainstream scholars, policy-makers and practitioners to admit the socially situated and political dimension of knowledge and ‘development’ blocks the growth of knowledge and undermines its social value (Harding 2004:2). Their unstated positionality and self-proclaimed ‘impartiality’ is charged with violent epistemic bias and domination which are hidden from sight, justifying their enforced universalistic claims and top-down policies (Young 1990:97). Thus, an analysis within the framework of development would only reproduce the knowledge marked by biased, discriminatory epistemologies and systems. Research, aid, technology and representation are always partial and political – they do not exist in a socio-political vacuum and never have ‘neutral’ effects.

For the purpose of this paper, it will be argued that both the human body and the body politic (i.e. the nation-state) are self-constituted, but also externally inscribed and shaped by (hetero)sexist, gendered, racialised, colonial, anthropo-narcissistic and classed signifiers[1]. I regard bell hooks’ notion of ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ (2004) most adequate to describe the interconnectedness between the aforementioned markers and their interplay. Attempts to isolate these constructions and forms of domination risk being apologetic for the status quo[2]. The assemblage of discourses, policies, lines of reasoning, attitudes, (re)presentations and economic investments prevailing the development industry have contributed to the furthering of these hierarchies. Within this system of apparent binary oppositions, the ‘developing’ Haiti stands in for the helpless, dependent, agency-less, feminine victim, whereas the ‘developed’ West is the ‘masculine’, colonial force[3].

(Hetero)sexist Gendering of Haiti

Within the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, Haiti is maintained as ‘the poorest country in the Western hemisphere’ (Central Intelligence Agency 2014), although shortly after the 1804 independence, the Haitian peasantry ‘had the highest standard of living in the Americas after the United States’ (Bellegarde-Smith 2010:139). Haitian revolutionaries asserted their autonomy, abolished slavery and formed an independent country in 1804, after 13 years of revolution. Instead of receiving reparations from the colonisers post-independence, between 1825 and 1947 Haiti was forced to pay annual ‘compensations’ of 150 million francs to France for the ‘loss’ of colonisers’ wealth and ‘ownership’ of enslaved individuals, in addition to reducing the import and export taxes by half (Farmer 2004). By 1900, the payments amounted to 80% of the national income (Gillam 2010), and between 1915-34 Haiti was occupied by the US military forces (Farmer 2004). Financial control was maintained throughout decades by corrupt governments backed by the West. Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti, demanded reparations from France of $21 billion for the period of slavery, but was opposed and destabilised by Western forces, and forced to flee the country in 2004 (Farmer 2004; Pina 2010).

The earthquake in 2010 is emblematic for making visible the legacy of colonialism and the continued antagonistic relationship between Haiti and the West. It highlights the role played by the development-industrial complex in, on the one hand, ‘helping’ Haitians, but ultimately, it (1) legitimises global power relations (Murithi 2009:4), (2) sexualises and effeminises Haitian people, (3) and penetrates the geopolitical space of Haiti with technology with an underlying ideology of anthropocentrism and phallocentrism. On the 12th of January 2010 an earthquake of 7.0M magnitude struck Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince and killed more than 230,000 individuals, injuring over 300,000 and displacing over 1.3 million. The city’s infrastructure, state buildings and personnel had been severely affected, 80% of the justice sector’s buildings being badly damaged (2010:3); 25% of government staff members perished (Gender Action 2010:1-3). Within hours, international organisations mobilised their material forces and shifted their attention to Haiti – a helpless, weak nation in need of being ‘rescued’ by the West – so the story went.

However, the earthquake had been ahistoricised and rendered ‘apolitical’[4] by international actors, policymakers and the Western media. They obscured the way in which the West had damaged Haiti’s material stability and memory through colonialism and imperialism (McAlister 2012:30). For instance, Calhoun (2010) ignorantly pathologises the country’s poverty and blames Haitians for the loss of lives by only looking at the surface of the problems, and Sassen (2010) discusses Haiti’s debt without acknowledging its origins and the West’s under-developing of Haiti. Within the development framework of analysis, the earthquake pushed Haiti ‘backwards’, whilst at the same time it provided opportunities (Fan 2013) for a ‘fast forward’ neoliberal move, strengthening neo-colonial powers and structures over what they saw as an effeminised, disempowered Haiti.

Policy Analysis[5]

Filtered through white, Western eyes, post-earthquake reports stressed the opportunity for ‘reconstruction’, the main humanitarian slogan being ‘building back better’ (Sontag 2012). However, technology (Landström 2007:9) and disasters are ‘anything but neutral’ as they are unevenly distributed and affect social relationships (Gender Action 2010:1). The mythical image of ‘disaster’ surrounding Haiti can be traced back to the 18th Century, when the colonisers refused to see the Haitian Revolution as a revolution, calling it a ‘horror’ (Fischer 2004:ix); slave insurrections were compared to ‘figurative earthshaking, seismological upheavails as literal earthshaking’ (Jenson 2010:104). Metaphors used by aid organisations such as ‘shifting ground or standing still?’ (Fan 2013:19) sensationalised the event, and created a context within which disaster could be used to further ‘shock doctrines’ and neo-colonial policies (Klein 2010). This dystopian, apolitical, ahistorical representation of ‘disaster’ was undertaken by Western modernisers/donors/corporations to advance remote imperial control through technologisation, claiming that a ‘digitally empowered’ population would create an ‘information revolution’ (Meier 2011:1239). I here present four ways in which Western technologies (of power) were deployed:

  1. ‘crisis mapping’[6] of areas (Meier 2011) and population tracking via texts and internet check-ins (Bengtsson et. al. 2011); 80,000 text messages were translated from Creole to English for assistance and 3,000 were directly used for response to requests for aid (Humanitarian Information Unit 2010:4);
  2. ‘aid’ to maintain Haiti’s dependency, and furthering Western economic growth (Roberts 2014);
  3. telethons and their (re)presentation of the Haitian population and the earthquake (McAlister 2012);
  4. broadcasting distorted information regarding the causes and effects of the earthquake as well as the historical involvement of the West in Haiti (Scott 2014). 

Technological Governmentality: Aid Bureaucracy and Digital Mapping

Technology has been incorporated in strategies of creating and reproducing subject identity and power relations, shaping social life (Wacjman 2000:451-4) and providing new ways for governing knowledge and generating economic surplus. Thus, the rolling-in of aid and technological innovations (online ‘crisis mapping’ of areas affected by the earthquake with the use of mobile phones), constructed a racialised and heterosexist identity (Peterson 1999) of a passive, dependent, not-yet-modernised Haiti. Using mobile devices, users can track themselves and self-govern, furthering the West’s appropriation of information. The data generated through these technologies can be capitalised, monitored, mapped, controlled remotely and used to engage the Western consumer/’stakeholder’ in consumption and to create work opportunities in the industry. Digital humanitarian work was outsourced to the West, big data giving ‘the sort of 24/7 workforce’ (Jasmine, cited by Burns 2014a). Only 1% of the USAID[7] development contracts and grants of $1.5 billion was directed to Haitian organisations (Fauset 2015), and the largest contracts were signed by unaccountable for-profit firms (Johnston 2012; Roberts 2014:3). The consequence of ‘selling access to telecommunications-as-empowerment’ (Spivak 2002:77) is the ‘capitalist penetration by global computing and telecommunications industries’ (Kapoor 2004:634).

Aid organisations form what McAlister calls ‘humanitarian adhocracy’[8] (2013:17), presenting themselves as ‘experts’ and technocrats who engage in ‘aid colonisation’[9] (Murithi 2009:3) and treat Haitians as objects, not subjects of policy. Mobile phones are used as technical solutionism to much wider structural problems to ‘compensate for inadequate infrastructures’ (The Economist 2009); internet platforms and ‘open source’ software applications are presented as the new commons of knowledge. Indeed, ‘there is no commons without a community’ (Mies 2014:i106) – the internet and digital humanitarianism in effect perpetuate enclosures and new divisions (Burns 2014b:51), hiding the exploitation of data and manipulation of algorithms by private owners. For the production of technological devices, minerals are extracted and E-garbage is produced, affecting the environment and the labourers (Mies 2014:i114). An aid worker rightly asks: ‘but who’s this for? who’s consuming it?’ (cited by Burns 2014a).

Cosmeticised Historical Amnesia and the Reaffirmation of Western Hegemony through Pity

Sensationalism defines the Western reporting of the earthquake. In short, ‘the suffering body is figured not as a site of self-determination’ (McAlister 2012:30) but as a sign of passivity, dependence, victimhood, hopelessness, agency-less static being. Through Western media (re)presentation, Haitians were fetishised, pitied, gazed at, commodified, and used as reminders to the West of Haiti’s ‘backwardness’ on the one hand, and the West’s power to ‘look after’ the victimised country (McAlister 2012:29) in a patronising, racist and patriarchal manner[10]. This practice was framed within an economy of empathy[11], nurtured and coupled with consumerism (Pedwell 2014:x). For instance, the economist Rifkin stated that ‘the entire human race was in an empathic embrace coming to the aid of Haiti’ (2010), although in essence, the earthquake re-affirmed a racialised pity towards black sufferers (Balaji 2011), deliberately distorting the responsibility of the West to pay reparations for colonialism and neo-colonialism[12].

The ‘Hope for Haiti Now’ telethon on 22nd January ‘was the most widely broadcast telethon in history’ (McAlister 2012:23). The industry rested on a simulation and consumption of images, and on performances of victimhood as conditions for aid (Horton 2012:303); these images are what Haraway would call ‘copies without originals’ (1991). The spectacle was orchestrated as follows: impoverished, injured and hyper-aestheticised bodies were asking for help, alongside celebrities who were performing and romanticising the situation, muting the sufferers and turning them into objects of compassion (McAlister 2012:34). Donations became the currency in which the individualised self was involved in practices of commodification and bad faith, boosting their self-esteem through consumption and erasing the urgency of responsibility for the suffering of the ‘othered’ Haitians. The telethon, prioritising the maximisation of financial gains, encouraged rationalisation and the calculus of viewing injury and pain alongside visual beauty and auditory pleasure’ (McAlister 2012:31).

The call for aiding the sufferers in Haiti was based on a problematic view of distributive social justice which individualistically and atomistically moralises the transfer of material goods and investments as an end in itself, without recognising the normative necessity of eliminating domination and oppression (Young 1990:15). The remoteness granted by technology creates a new way in which the individual ‘philantropist’ can ‘give back’ to the world[13].

Within such an architecture of power, Haiti stands in for the signifiers ‘femininity’, ‘nature’, ‘victim’, ‘irrationality’ and ‘passivity’, a place and population to be explored, domesticated and governed: ‘Haiti is seen to have failed at self-governance and so requires significant international influence and leadership’ (O’Connor, Brisson-Boivin and Ilcan 2014:326). The ‘masculine’ West acts with an androcentric, white, violent force, whilst also being the ‘saviour’ and ‘moderniser’ of Haiti. Power-relations within the system of imperialist white supremacist patriarchy involve the mobilisation of modernising technologies[14] and techno-utopian[15] policies marketed as the solution for unilinear development and progress (Morozov 2013; Scott 2014). Technology is used by ‘donors’ for reconstruction in a context in which neoliberalism prevails through (1) the imposition of structural adjustment policies, (2) the reproduction of the legacy of imperialism through epistemic violence, (3) the international division of labour, (4) and the exploitation of the environment for profit and information gathering (Spivak 1990:14). All these processes underscore the link between technology, aid, development and their Western, patriarchal, anthropo-narcissistic and heterosexist dimensions and ideologies.

Tackling the imbalance of power imperatively requires struggling for material and epistemic de-colonisation: ‘de-linking from the most fundamental belief of modernity’ and its abstract universals (Mignolo 2007:500), and for dismantling patriarchy. As Harding argues, development is translated into ‘dedevelopment’, whereas ‘progress for humanity’ is translated into regress for women (1998:149) and, I add, for the feminised objects of focus. Coupled with governmentality and the neoliberal system of capital accumulation, Haiti has successfully been (re)positioned within the colonial nexus of power whose development-industrial complex represents the continuation of the European expansion that began in 1492 (Harding 1998:154; Dussel 2000:474).

It is partly the case that for development to ‘work’, it is not only the coloniser who needs to see the ‘positive’ aspect of development, but also the colonised (Mies 1993:151). However, resistance and calls for reparations instead of aid have not ceased in Haiti. Self-sufficiency, anti-foreign-aid, anti-dependency resistance and critique have continued after the earthquake (McAlister 2013:11), as well as actions of challenging negative representations in the media. As a grassroots Haitian woman leader stated,

We are working and we have prestige and capacity. It’s not a question of [receiving] money; it’s a question of conviction and the need to be active (cited by Horton 2012:305). 


[1] The ‘natural body’ vs ‘body politic’ distinction can be seen also in medieval political theology: the king was supposed to have two bodies: (1) the biological body and (2) the political authority to represent ‘his’ people (Kantorowicz 1957:8-11).

[2] The white supremacist feminist framework sees gendered oppression reflected solely through sexism and domination performed by the masculine body over the feminine body, without acknowledging imperialism, racism and classism as gendered oppression.

[3] (Hetero)gender binaries create false and hierarchical dichotomies which freeze ‘femininity’ as the ‘sex object’ without taking the ‘subject function except in terms of those definitions or as “imitators” of men’ (Spivak 1981:181).

[4] However, ‘neutral’ objectivism is always biased and cannot escape politics.

[5] ‘Policy’ is here used loosely, as an element of the complexity and assemblage of discourses, representations and practices mobilised around the earthquake’s impact on Haiti in 2010.

[6] Real-time geo-referenced data (Meier 2011:1241)

[7] The United States Agency for International Development

[8] ‘humanitarian aid based on guesswork, failed coordination, and “satisficing”’ (McAlister 2013:17).

[9] Aid colonisation is ‘the premeditated utilisation of aid to manipulate, control and coerce the recipient into fulfilling the donor agenda’ (Murithi 2009:3).

[10] George Clooney, appealing to his audience: ‘it’s a big world out there and we all have a lot of responsibility to look out for people who can’t look after themselves’ (cited by McAlister 2012:29).

[11] In a World Economic Forum Report it was claimed that even companies are able to be driven by compassion, voluntary self-regulation and a desire for ‘data philanthropy’ (2012:7).

[12] Fanon put it perfectly: ‘So when we hear the head of a European state declare with his hand on his heart that he must come to the help of the poor under-developed peoples, we do not tremble with gratitude. Quite the contrary; we say to ourselves: “It’s a just reparation which will be paid to us”’ (Fanon 1965:81).

[13] Mogul Bill Gates declared that ‘technology means that everyone can be a philanthropist’ (2014).

[14] Here technology is to be understood as aid, socio-economic policies and the media.

[15] Morozov adequately stated that ‘techno-humanitarianism is much more techno than humanitarian’ (2012).


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