Disaster and beyond

Tracy Kidder wrote Mountains Beyond Mountains about Dr. Paul Farmer’s heroic efforts to bring basic health care to Haiti’s poorest citizens. Donate to Farmer’s Partners in Health’s post-earthquake efforts at www.standwithhaiti.org/haiti.
A few other worthy organizations include International Rescue Committee at www.theirc.org/donate/donate-now-haiti and Doctors Without Borders at www.doctorswithoutborders.org.

The natural disaster in Haiti is, quite rightly, receiving a large amount of public attention, as well as U.S. humanitarian aid. It’s only natural that we reach out to other nations in need and assist them when earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and the like leave death, injury and devastation in their wake.

But the disaster in Haiti is much more than a natural one. Some of the devastation is also the result of years of deliberate actions, as more fully developed nations—including the United States—opted to ignore political chaos, grinding poverty and the damage caused by successive hurricanes (three, plus a tropical storm, hit Haiti in a single month last year). The devastation wrought by the recent earthquake is horrible beyond imagination, but it has been compounded by the very desperate straits in which Haiti was already stranded.

Eighty percent of Haiti’s 9 million people lived in poverty before the events of last week. Swaths of the nation had become near deserts as a result of overfarming and deforestation, and food shortages have been consistent problems in the last few decades. The farming crisis is also an ecological crisis, and it has meant that Haiti cannot feed itself under the best circumstances.

According to UNICEF, only half of Haiti’s children had been enrolled in school before last week’s earthquake. A quarter of its infants were at risk due to low birth weight, and a quarter of the children under 5 years old were so severely underweight that their growth has been stunted. Almost half of the population had no access to safe drinking water; the rate for access to sanitation facilities (things like toilets) was even lower.

Attempts to alleviate these conditions have been hampered by the political situation. Since the exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, the nation has struggled with violence; according to the United Nations, warring political factions have enlisted the aid of gangs of criminals. This unpredictable but frequent violence interfered with the distribution of aid.

Haiti is our neighbor, a nation quite literally at our back door. It has provided many immigrants who have contributed a great deal to our culture, and the people of that country deserve better than to be given emergency aid and then left to their own devices until the next disaster puts them back on the front pages.

Once the dust has settled and the immediate needs have been met, we have a responsibility to see that Haiti doesn’t just slip away from public consciousness once again.

We need to participate actively—as any good neighbor would—in programs to bring a decent standard of living to Haiti.

We would accept no less than a safe country with clean and accessible water for ourselves. It is the very least that the people of Haiti deserve.