Slowly and painfully, we are seeing worldwide acceptance of the fact that the wealthier and more technically advanced countries have a responsibility to help the underdeveloped ones. – Sir Edmond Hillary
By now everyone knows what happened in the city of Port-au-Prince on Tuesday afternoon. The images of devastation are hard to look at and even harder to ignore.
I am heartened by the outpouring of support from wealthy nations like Canada, the United States and Britain. The Canadian government yesterday pledged to match dollar for dollar everything Canadian citizens give in support of the relief effort. This is estimated to be as much as $100 million. Aid Organizations like World Vision, The Red Cross and Mennonite Central Committee have had to bring in extra staff to handle the volume of donations. But I worry that as the media spot light fades the support will dry up. As one exasperated Haitian put it “we don’t need the media, we need help.”
Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. According to 2008 numbers from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) the gross domestic product per capita is only $1,660 per year and only 50% of the population has even a primary education. 10 million people are crammed into a land mass roughly the size of the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Haiti didn’t get this way as a result of an earthquake or even repeated direct hits by hurricanes in 2007-08. Haiti got this way as a result of bad government and a combination of international neglect/meddling. In the 90s Canada and the United States launched a joint military intervention in Haiti that ousted a corrupt president and installed a new government. They promptly left the country and never followed up with the kinds of support an emerging democracy and economy needs. The result is the Haiti we have today.
Compare this to the Dominican Republic which shares the same island; the population is roughly the same but GDP is nearly 6 times higher at $8,220 and 75% of the population is educated. Still poor by G8 standards but much better off than its neighbour to the west. As recently is 50 years ago Haiti was the stronger country and at various times throughout its history the island has been unified under one government based in Port-au-Prince.
The reasons for the differences between the two countries could take days to dissect. For a detailed analysis check out Jared Diamond’s book Collapse; How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed.
My point is this; the problems in Haiti and other destitute countries throughout the world will not be solved by writing a cheque to the Red Cross. After the media spotlight fades your money will most likely be used to rebuild and life will somehow return to normal. Granted some of your money will end up in the hands of corrupt individuals or lost to administrative costs, that is just the way things are and I really have nothing to say to that fact. But normal in Haiti is still deplorable to most of the world.
What Haiti needs is long term assistance. Not just money but expertise in education, resource management, entrepreneurship, and government reform. $100 million dollars from Canada will rebuild a lot of infrastructure but to maintain that infrastructure and build human capital to lift the nation out of poverty takes commitment. Years and years of commitment.
Let’s hope that we don’t repeat our mistakes of the 90s and this time we follow through and support our Haitian neighbours as they rebuild not only their homes but a better life.