Posted by: Jeff | January 14, 2010

Haiti

From Boston.com's photo feature on the Haiti earthquake.

The information trickling out of Haiti in the wake of Tuesday’s 7.0 earthquake is both horrifying and deeply sad.  Unconfirmed thousands are dead, emergency response infrastructure is shattered, and the social fabric – to say nothing of the supply of essential services like safe food and shelter – is in disarray.

The staggering loss of life and livelihood across Haiti is heart-breaking, but the broader context makes the story “cruel and incomprehensible,” to borrow the words of President Obama.

Rubble in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo: Boston.com

Haiti was on the verge of something – after decades of civil conflict and political instability, followed by a spate of devastating hurricanes, Haiti was one of two Caribbean countries projected to experience GDP growth in 2010.  Aid and investment groups had begun pouring money into the island country, seeking to inject the stagnant economy with capital and technical support that would lift the country out of poverty – the most abject in the entire Western hemisphere.  Despite the miserable past, it was quickly becoming a realistic dream that Haiti would be the Dominican Republic of the future – a bustling tourist destination and emerging regional economy.

Now, this seems a pipe dream.  Initial estimates of damages are still coming in, and they do not look good. Tyler Cowen lists off a whole litany of problems Haiti is facing:

Haiti is about the size of Maryland and a big chunk of the population lives in or near Port-Au-Prince, maybe a third of the total, depending on what you count as a suburb.  So the collapse of Port-Au-Prince is a big, big deal for the country as a whole.  It’s a dominant city for Haiti.  Plus Jacmel seems to be leveled.  From the reports I have seen, my tentative conclusion is that the country as a whole is currently below the subsistence level and will remain so for the foreseeable future.  Hundreds of thousands of people have died, the U.N. Mission has collapsed, the government is not working (was it ever?), and hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of people are living in the streets without reliable food or water supplies.  The hospitals and schools have collapsed.  The airport is shut down.  The port is very badly damaged.  The Haitian Penitentiary has collapsed and the inmates — tough guys most of them — are running free for the foreseeable future.  There is no viable police force or army.

In other words, it’s not just a matter of offering extra food aid for two or three years.

Very rapidly, President Obama needs to come to terms with the idea that the country of Haiti, as we knew it, probably does not exist any more.

Searching through the rubble of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo: Boston.com

Eyewitnesses on the ground describe chaos, where aid workers are completely unable to help – themselves often affected by the devastation all around them.  As one NGO worker writes:

“The city [now] has no infrastructure for health care, no security forces, all roads are full of debris and [fallen] walls. My hotel has totally collapsed.” He said there was “nothing on the ground to support relief,” and added, “I will need help to make it through the next few days. I am faced with a decision to evacuate or stay here to help.” He signed off somewhat ominously by noting, “There are already people knocking on our gates for help.”

All of this paints a pessimistic picture of the future.  It is difficult to envision much development success in the coming years or even decades when Haiti lacks the capacity now to even sustain basic services.  Schools will be closed for months if not years, and hospitals will be over-burdened and under-funded for the time being.  Infrastructure needs to be completely rebuilt, and despite the loss of life, people now outnumber homes by a substantial margin.  In the short term, the peril of Haiti is heart-breaking.  In the long term, it is no less dire, and for that this story is all the more incomprehensible.

Haitians survey a collapsed building in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Boston.com

As the international community reels and ponders a plan to save Haiti, one plan on the table strikes me as an incredibly good – and compassionate – idea: debt cancellation.

The Times of London chronicles the origin of Haiti’s massive state debt and the unfair conditions under which Haiti’s economy has remained mired: “By 1900, [Haiti] was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments.”  After years of interest and repayment plans, Haiti’s debt still stood earlier this year at $1.9 billion.  Given its recent stability and plan for re-development, $1.2 billion of this debt was canceled earlier this year.  The rest should be forgiven immediately.

It is encouraging that both the international community and the White House have come out of the gates offering full-throated support for the people of Haiti.  The magnitude of the crisis is obvious, and the response has thus far been a stark contrast to earlier disasters (for the inevitable Katrina comparison, go here).

Taiwanese rescue workers prepare to go to Haiti. Photo: Boston.com

The pictures of foreign emergency response teams preparing the day of the earthquake to serve in Haiti are uplifting, as was the message delivered by President Obama:

Finally, I want to speak directly to the people of Haiti.  Few in the world have endured the hardships that you have known.  Long before this tragedy, daily life itself was often a bitter struggle.  And after suffering so much for so long, to face this new horror must cause some to look up and ask, have we somehow been forsaken?

To the people of Haiti, we say clearly, and with conviction, you will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten.  In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you.  The world stands with you.  We know that you are a strong and resilient people.  You have endured a history of slavery and struggle, of natural disaster and recovery.  And through it all, your spirit has been unbroken and your faith has been unwavering.  So today, you must know that help is arriving — much, much more help is on the way.

Recognition of Haiti’s traumatic past and current distress is nice, but an unwavering commitment to help will save lives.

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Responses

  1. […] is  another sad layer to that story that the organization responsible for breathing new life into Haiti was largely […]

  2. […] A year ago I observed that it was difficult to envision much success in Haiti given the level of destruction.  With zero institutional capacity for basic services, education, and health care, there isn’t much a country can do.  But it is still disappointing to look back on the promises made and the false hope given in the wake of the disaster.  Maybe that’s what we were looking for to salve our conscience in the early days of 2010, but in 2011 it just leaves a bad taste in the mouth knowing what help was promised and how little arrived.  After all, it was the American President who issued an address directly to the ears of the Haitians affected by the earthquake: Finally, I want to speak directly to the people of Haiti.  Few in the world have endured the hardships that you have known.  Long before this tragedy, daily life itself was often a bitter struggle.  And after suffering so much for so long, to face this new horror must cause some to look up and ask, have we somehow been forsaken? […]


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