Was the Haitian disaster preventable?

Social Justice — By on January 27, 2010 at 1:00 am

The obvious response to this potentially offensive question is no. Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake, as straightforward an Act of Nature (or God, depending on who you ask) as one could find. The world is now rushing to relieve the overwhelming devastation this tiny country has suffered. Whether it needed be so large a catastrophe, however, is a real question.

Haiti was, in many ways, a disaster “waiting to happen.” Although a major earthquake will inevitably cause damage and endanger lives, no matter how stringent our building codes, part of the reason Haiti’s death toll is so disturbing is because the extremity of the loss was preventable.

Although the world moves quickly to aid Haiti now, much of the suffering presently plaguing the Haitians could have been avoided if their buildings had been sounder, if their government had been less corrupt, and if their county had been less rife with disease already.

It is not as if Haiti’s need has gone unacknowledged ere now. Much international aid and involvement has been available to them, though one cannot help but conclude that if aid had been more effectual before the earthquake, there would be less need of it now. This reminds us that our aid should be intelligent and infrastructural, not just earnest and palliative.

My intention in this post is not to point fingers or hypothesize what-ifs. Neither is it to indict world governments for not doing more to help stabilize nations wracked with poverty and disease, although there is no doubt a place for such adjuration. My desire is simply to draw attention to the places where the general population’s attention and help goes: it invariably goes to the most publicized and most dramatic need. This is, to some degree, inevitable, but it need not be the case to the degree that it is.

It seems inevitable: when there is disaster on the scale of the one still felt in Haiti, the world pays attention. Most concerned people want to offer immediate alleviation to immediate crisis — and this is as it should be. When people are dying daily of broken bones because there are not enough facilities or practitioners to operate before infection kills, and where people suffer greatly because they are without any sort of pain medication, not to mention potable water, the merciful and the just will seek to answer such obvious needs.

But let us remember, in light of Haiti, that there are world-over “powderkegs of poverty,” places where the lack of a news-commanding crisis allows the world’s attention to wander from need just as great, if less sensational.

Human trafficking and sex slavery persist world-over. Child soldiering continues, particularly in Africa. Poverty and disease are to be found in every place where there is human culture, as are unjust and faulty systems of government.

These problems are endemic. Though they are combatable, they often fall through the cracks of the average person’s attention–especially if we are not confronted with these tragedies personally. Even when we are, the theatrics of the pleas for money and the voyeuristic nature of media attention to a given issue can repel us even further from attending to such huge, persistent problems.

A natural disaster is more easily addressed than the intricacies of labor abuses, for instance, and it is easier to make a onetime donation to the Red Cross than to consistently buy fair-trade products. Systems of injustice and abuse are much harder to solve than an obvious physical need like a lack of medical supplies. They are also more difficult to remember, since they are always with us, enmeshed in the way the world works, not jarring like a hurricane or an earthquake.

But such problems are as pressing to the Christian desiring to “do unto the least of these” and to live in the light of Christ’s life-giving gospel. We who are adjured to do justly and love mercy and walk humbly are counseled to defend the orphan and the widow — I would suggest that this means those orphaned and widowed of the world’s attention as well, the overlooked tragedies. There are those whom disaster has never struck suddenly, but whom it has slowly sapped and crushed instead. These too need our aid and our attention and our prayers.

Give to Haiti. Give to those organizations that are either grass-roots enough (a group of local doctors flying in) or well established enough (find information here on appropriate, informed giving) that you may be confident your money will be used toward relief and reconstruction, and not lost in bureaucracy or misdirection. But as you do give to Haiti, consider researching and giving to help support a less present cause as well.

Consistently contributing to an AIDS orphan’s education or to Red Cross efforts worldover is something harder to remember when not reinforced by a media-blitz of attention to an explosive crisis. There are nations that sag under foreign debt, and people who daily go without food even in the United States. Let us not forget the orphans and the widows of the world whom major disaster and media coverage do not help us remember.

As you give to help an immediate and obvious need, consider giving to help develop infastructure or establish micro-loans in other instances of need. Let us, as we average people turn our attention to staunching Haiti’s decimating wounds through personal giving, not overlook opportunities to strengthen other nations by the same means, in hopes of working to proactively prevent such extreme disaster elsewhere. ‘


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  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Dustin R. Steeve

    Amy,

    I really like your idea that we should help donate with the goal of building infrastructure in impoverished countries; it is not an idea I am hearing discussed in the mainstream press. In the early 90′s, Los Angeles was rocked by a quake of similar magnitude to the Haitian quake yet 200,000 did not die as a result of the quake. The reason was that the infrastructure (buildings, roads, etc) were built to withstand high magnitude quakes.

    Food and medical aid are indeed needed, but they are not the only problem solving mechanisms that a rich and powerful, like the United States, can employ. With charitable hearts we can leverage the free market to provide opportunity for entrepreneurs in Haiti to grow that nation’s economy so that they too could afford to build the kind of quake resistant infrastructure that places like the United States have already researched and developed.

    The really good news is that organizations like Kiva empower individual people to donate small amounts of money, comparable to what we would donate to organizations like the Red Cross, in order to help bright and ambitious Haitians to do the work they want to do (but cannot afford to do) to grow their nation to be independently wealthy and strong.

    Great post Amy! I honestly hadn’t thought of this before.

  • pentamom

    Of course the structural problems in Haiti go way beyond anything donating money will solve. It is good to give, and to pray that the money will be made good use of. We are called to do that. But the worldview the average Haitian is trapped in will prevent him even from making good use of opportunities, and will stymie any and all efforts at reforming injustices that keep him down.

    Only if the gospel is embraced will any amount of aid do any appreciable good. I don’t mean that in the “super spiritual” sense of “material things aren’t the answer in life,” but in the sense that there won’t even be any measurable material improvement unless the things that enslave the hearts and minds of most Haitians are done away with. This is true in Haiti in ways that it is not necessarily true in other mission fields, so I’m not talking about a basic gospel truism here, but about something that is endemic to particularly basket-case cultures, of which Haiti is one.

    IOW, not only will all the aid in the world not save the Haitians, it won’t even stop buildings from falling on them when the earth shakes until they learn that there’s such thing as “tomorrow” and that their actions actually affect that thing called “tomorrow.” Right now, while they’re as capable of understanding such basic things as you or I, they are prevented by their worldview and their experience from doing so.

  • Lauren Myracle

    Excellent post. We need to give with wisdom, not hype or just because George Clooney says to.

    I like your point about long term aid affecting infrastructure. Committing to fair trade organizations is an excellent beginning.

  • Lauren Myracle

    Another note: It would also be a good idea to give to specific churches (churches perhaps in your own denomination). The churches have been hit hard in Haiti as well, and apparently they have been a good portion of the small bit of “infrastructure” that Haiti had.

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Lindsay Stallones

    Excellent article, Amy! Thank you so much for reminding us that Haiti’s problem goes back centuries, and that it will take time and effort to help them build a stable, successful country.

    And thank you especially for mentioning the human trafficking concerns, around the world as in Haiti, the most notorious nation on earth for child trafficking both in domestic labor and sex slavery. Right now is a critical time – with criminals on the streets (many of whom were serving time for trafficking) and law and order in chaos, Haiti’s children are more vulnerable than ever.