Haiti After the Earthquake


1. Heroism and Hypocrisy
2. Hypocrisy and Complexity

1. Heroism and Hypocrisy

There are three sets of heroes that have revealed themselves in the aftermath of the devastation in Haiti. They deserve our attention and praise.

The first heroes are the people of Port-au-Prince and other affected areas in Haiti. While the international efforts to get aid to Haiti have made the headlines, the people on the ground have endured unimaginable horror and desperation in the wake of the earthquake. The buildings in Port-au-Prince fell just before 5:00 p.m. Less than an hour later the sun set and darkness fell. Through that first long night and the days and nights that have followed, Haitians have pulled friends and loved ones out of the rubble, formed communities to share food and water and have led the call for faster and more effective aid.

The second set of heroes are the international aid workers who hit the ground so soon after earthquake. Whether they are nurses, doctors, medics, soldiers, police officers, or other recovery experts they are, no doubt, the first wave of an army of internationals that will pass through Haiti over the next 20 years. And there's is a terrible, terrible job. The accounts of the horrors of the first days are chilling. Amidst all the journalistic spectacle that followed the earthquake and the over-the-top first person narratives of reporters on the scene, the men and women providing aid have quietly and bravely dealt with experiences that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

The third set of heroes is the people who have given so much money to international aid groups. The groundswell of financial support in a time of economic uncertainty is staggering. What makes this so powerful is that, unlike "celebrities" who feed their need for attention or the politicians who look to burnish their images, the people giving money derive no ego or career boosting benefit. They gave because they saw something happening that needed a response. As of today, the CBC reports that Canadian citizens have donated more than 80 million dollars.

In contrast to that unbridled and immediate reaction, the gathering of politicians and governmental officials in Montreal on Monday was underwhelming and disappointing. If ever there was a time for big and dramatic action - debt forgiveness, a "Marshall plan for Haiti", a concrete commitment to a relief and reconstruction strategy. Instead, in a meeting that seemed to have been called more for the benefit of the Canadian government than for the people of Haiti, we got vague commitments and assurances and some self-righteous lecturing from Hillary Clinton on the need to assess and prioritize before any concrete commitments. No doubt all the parties will return home and attempt to capture some electoral lift from the appearance of action and statesmanship.

After the Earth moved, the response has been rapid as befits a world where information and emotion flickers so quickly across great distances. This was a time for action. Instead, we got the same empty and ineffective politics that crippled Copenhagen in December and keeps Iraq and Afghanistan teetering on the brink of chaos. We deserve better. Haiti needs better. - Beta

2. Hypocrisy and Complexity

While it is always difficult for me to admit that Beta may be right about anything, there is little to quibble with in his take on Haiti. So instead, let me take the issue of the governmental and institutional response further. I want to suggest that the reaction illustrates some common responses to natural disaster abroad. While such responses are complex, they are not flattering, and we should do a better job of understanding them.

The immediate collective response to disaster on the scale of the earthquake in Haiti is horror and a desire to help our fellow man. This is natural, and the instinct to assist is good. But this is soon followed by a more diverse range of responses. Our media begin to obsess on the myriad stories thrown up by the disaster, both tragic and heroic, and we collectively seem to feed some perverse psychological needs through the consumption of these stories. Moreover, and even more perverse, we begin to turn our gaze inward, and consider how we as a people should be judged by our collective response. And when I say "we", I mean the peoples of most nations. The Israeli press has been obsessing over the issue of what the country's reaction reflected about Israelis and what it would do for their nation's standing in the world. The American and Canadian press has run stories comparing their percapata donation rates.

Where the hypocrisy and cynicism really begin to creep in is when governments and other organizations institutionalize this aspect of the collective response. While espousing the need to help our fellow man, governments develop aid policy with a cold utilitarian eye on the opportunity to demonstrate to its electorate governmental competence and effectiveness in the face of emergency. Other purely political motives similarly dictate policy. For instance, in the aftermath of the Tsunami disaster of 2004, which caused massive damage and loss of life in over six countries, with Indonesia suffering the worst of it, the Canadian government focused its aid almost exclusively, and very conspicuously, on Sri Lanka. The minister in the Canadian cabinet who had responsibility for managing Canada's initial response had, it turned out, a large Sri Lankan constituency in his riding. The left wing in Israel is currently asking why Israel is so intent on rushing aid half-war around the world, while Gaza remains a disaster area on its doorstep, for which it is morally responsible.

The suspicion regarding motives is compounded by how quickly the assistance efforts fall off as soon as the initial horror and sympathy begin to subside. Only a fraction of the Tsunami assistance pledges were eventually paid. Last week the United States stopped airlifting the seriously injured from Haiti, ostensibly due to domestic squabbles over the costs, leaving people to die on the ground in Port-au-Prince. This all becomes even more complicated when the issue of long term aid begins to be debated. In what form, and under what kinds of conditions and external control, should reconstruction and reformation take? Whose interests will dictate how those questions are answered?

Our response to these disasters is complex. It certainly cannot be condemned as some form of collective schadenfreude - but it is also most certainly darker and more complicated than an outpouring of good will and humanitarian assistance. We need to develop a better understanding of our collective reactions, and particularly interrogate the motives behind our public institutional responses to such horrors. - Gamma.



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