Saturday, January 23, 2010
HAITI'S UNNATURAL DISASTER
100+ Katrinas on Our Doorstep PART ONE: "FLASHBACK" James S. Henry
HAITI'S UNNATURAL DISASTER
-- Michael Rose (c) 2004
--FDR, Foreign Affairs, VI, 584, 1928
Less than 90 minutes by air southeast of Miami, Haiti's 10.1 million people are enduring the hell-on-earth created by the 7.0 Mw, 35-second earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on Tuesday January 12th. This was by far the largest disaster in the Western Hemisphere since Columbus brought slavery, smallpox, and Christianity to Hispaniola in the 15th century.
It was not only one of the ten most lethal earthquakes ever, but also by far the most destructive ever, per unit of intensity. Many other more severe earthquakes have occurred in major urban areas in developing countries like Mexico and Iran without producing nearly so many casualties -- at last count, at least 150,000 dead and several hundred thousand injured.
This provides a clue to the fact that, as we'll explore in this series, there really was nothing "natural" at all about the Haitian earthquake disaster at all -- or, for that matter, about the thousands of lives that were unnecessarily lost to hurricanes and floods in Haiti in 2008, 2005, 2004, 1998, 1994, 1963, and 1954.
In reality, as this long series of excessively-costly disasters suggests, most of this suffering was avoidable and even predictable. The poverty, inequality, excessive urbanization, landlessness, and poor construction that contributed to it were greatly aggravated by decades -- centuries, in fact -- of a Gordian "social knot."
This involved a perverse combination of lousy government, long-standing class war between the dominant French-speaking "milat" elite and the Creole-speaking descendents of "bossales," an agricultural system that fostered very low productivity and high rates of deforestation.
On top of these domestic factors there has also been a seemingly endless supply of counterproductive foreign interference. Much of this was conducted with rapacious motives that were barely disguised, if at all. But much of it was also conducted, as Graham Greene -- a Haiti devotee -- used to say, with the very best motives.
Finally, all the resulting squalor and ignorance proved to be a great Petri dish for the proliferation of a very colorful but ultimately quite fatalistic blend of voodoo and Catholicism. While it is right to be skeptical about indigenous culture as an "uncaused cause" of long-term backwardness, it is hard to deny that all this superstitious nonsense ever encouraged ordinary Haitians to believe they could be masters of their own destiny, rather than perpetual victims.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Right now the focus of the world community is inevitably on disaster relief and fund raising. We'll examine the pathologies of this aid effort in Part Two. However, to achieve a sustained recovery, and avoid the perpetuation of Haiti's misery, it is already clear that Haitians will need to focus as quickly as possible on deeper issues.
Among other things, they have important national elections coming up as soon as late February 2010. A crucial test for the international community as well as the Haitian government will be to see to it that these elections are held, and are open to all parties -- including x President Aristide's LAVALAS.
To achieve a sustained recovery, and break out of the cycle of dependence, superstition, and vulnerability to "disasters" and dependence, Haiti needs much more than Sbillions in foreign aid, debt relief, or charitable contribution. Indeed, what it needs may be completely at odds with such dependence.
As we'll argue, Haiti needs strong, independent, popular government, by political leaders who are not kleptocrats, blood-thirsty tyrants, or the indentured servants of foreign and domestic elites, and who also have a broad popular following.
Unfortunately, strong government is not something that Haiti's wealthier neighbors, or its continuing dependence on outside assistance, have encouraged.
FLASHBACKS -- RECURRENT PATTERNS
Sadly, it is possible to repeat here almost verbatim many of the "lessons learned" that we drew from the Sumatra tsunami "disaster," five year ago to the month. While Haiti differs from that situation in crucial respects, these conclusions provide a useful baseline for comparison:
"....Among the worst consequences of such catastrophic events are the longer-term traumas associated with disease, losing friends, family, fellow citizens, livelihoods, communities, and whole ways of life.
As usual -- and as was true in the case of 9/11, for example -- much of the initial media coverage ....has focused on body counts, other dire visible consequences, and the massive relief effort that has followed.
That is to be expected. But before our attention span drifts too far off in the direction of some other new Third World calamity, it may be helpful to step back and examine some of the systematic factors that contribute to the high costs of such mishaps over and over again, and the extraordinary costs of this "natural".. disaster in particular.
Our overall theme is that there is really no such thing as a “natural disaster” per se. This is not to say that man-made forces were completely responsible.... But, as discussed below, the degree to which any such event results in a social and economic “disaster” is often to a great extent under our control.
Indeed, they were actually foreseen by several geological experts, some of whom have been advocating unsuccessfully for an (earthquake/ tsunami) early warning system for years.
(Note: this was true of both Indonesia and Haiti, which to this date still has not one seismology station in the entire country.)
(The damage) could also have been substantially mitigated or avoided entirely with relatively modest investments -- certainly compared with the costs of reconstruction that will now have to be born.
It has been conspicuously short on actual aid getting through to the
front lines (in the critical first days).
Today, two weeks after the disaster, aid efforts are well-funded, but they remain sluggish, disorganized, and ineffective, with at least as many additional lives in jeopardy right now for want of aid as perished in the original (waves) quake.
But we may want to demand that the UN, the US Government, the EU, and all these relief organizations get their acts together, and establish a permanent, well-run, well-funded global relief organization that can move more quickly the next time around.
Along the way, we should also pay far more attention to preventive systems and medical care for the masses that can help save the future victims of such disasters, before instant disaster relief becomes necessary.
(c) SubmergingMarkets, 2005, 2010