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James S. Henry

Saturday, January 23, 2010


100+ Katrinas on Our Doorstep
James S. Henry

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-- Michael Rose (c) 2004

(In Haiti) we cleaned house, restored order, built public works ... We are still there....(W)e seem to have paid too little attention to making the citizens of these states more capable of reassuming the control of their own governments. But we have done a fine piece of material work, and the world ought to thank us.”

-FDR, Foreign Affairs, VI, 584, 1928

Less than 90 minutes by air  southeast of Miami,  Haiti's 10.1 million people are enduring the 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.

Hopeforhaiti 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.   


Right now the focus of the world community  is inevitably  on disaster 190-973Haiti_Earthquake.sff.embedded.prod_affiliate.111 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. 


Sadly, it is possible to repeat here almost verbatim many of the "lessons learned" that we drew from the A-child-injured-in-an-ear-001 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.

10 In the case of (this disaster), its high costs were entirely foreseeable, at least in a "sometime soon" sense.

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.

Furthermore, the global response to this horrific disaster has been long on  the size of aid pledges, dignitary A-tent-city-outside-in-Po-003 press conferences, and “oh – the horror” press coverage.

It has been conspicuously short on actual aid getting through to the front lines (in the critical first days).

Haiti2 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.

This is partly explained by the sheer difficulty of getting aid through... But, as explained below, it is also due to political factors, and the fact that the world community still runs humanitarian relief efforts like a competitive “pick-up” softball game. 

Fortunately, this particular crisis seems to have captured the attention of the world's donor community. At this point, with more than ($billions) in aid pledged by governments, multilateral institutions, and (dozens) of private relief organizations,  the real problem is not money, but disorganization.

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.

(-- from "SO-CALLED NATURAL DISASTERS," SubmergingMarkets, Jan. 1, 2005.)

(c) SubmergingMarkets, 2005, 2010

January 23, 2010 at 06:21 PM | Permalink


Hi Jim,

Well written as always. Lets hope whoever rides in on the ox cart to Port Au Prince (see Gordian Knot) in the next election shall be worthy of the ox he rode in on.

Warm regards,


Posted by: Seth Grossman at Feb 23, 2010 11:41:40 AM