A Lesson From Haiti
category: Newspaper Articles

A Lesson From Haiti

by Emily Richardson Fanjoy

Guest Columnis

In my time here I read a lot. I read to understand what’s going on around me, to know what’s going on in the world outside of our little community, to escape for a time from work’s frustrations, as well as to pass the hours and hours of travel it takes to get anywhere from our village. Lately I’ve been reading a lot on economics and poverty, and these readings along with new coverage on the earthquake and relief efforts in Haiti have given me a lot to think about.

I usually spend a great deal of time talking about Guatemala, but today I feel drawn to the situation in Haiti precisely because of all the similarities between the two countries. Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, and while Guatemala has a much higher GDP, the two countries still have similar rates of malnutrition, child and maternal mortality, and illiteracy. Guatemala also suffered terribly in a 1976 earthquake that killed approximately 25,000 people; more recently in 2005, Hurricane Stan washed away entire villages killing 1,500. These communities are still struggling to rebuild, much as Haiti will undoubtedly struggle for years to come.

It’s heartening that so many people from all over the world have pledged money, assistance, and support to Haiti. It’s a large scale version of something I saw a lot of while growing up in Logansport and going to college in Galesburg, Illinois. I would walk into the local gas station, and there would be a can sitting on the counter, where I could leave extra change to help someone with a serious illness. Small communities often organize chili or spaghetti dinners to the help a local in need. It’s evidence of our human compassion, and proof that we don’t like to see people suffering from physical maladies and strained under enormous financial burdens they cannot pay. I think it’s a testament to the fact that we all agree that people deserve to be cared for, to have food, water, shelter, and medical attention when needed—even if we don’t all agree on exactly how these needs should be met. Both types of fundraising have another commonality: they happen only after disaster strikes. People pay attention when the word crisis is used, when the need is immediate. We tend to pay less attention to problems that are always there, but distant enough to be forgotten in the midst of our busy lives.

In reality, the Haitians most affected by the quake have been struggling to survive, for decades balancing on the fine line between living poor and dying in poverty. The earthquake tipped the scales of already tenuous circumstances. TIME magazine recently printed a statistic worth repeating: in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake of nearly the same magnitude, 63 people died, yet the death toll in Haiti is in the 200,000 range. The quake exacerbated the difficulties of already living with subpar municipal water systems, sewage disposal, health care facilities, roads, seaports, and airports. What happened in Haiti can, and will, happen again in any of a number of countries struggling with the same issues of underdevelopment.

I think it’s important that we realize why we should take a vested interest in developing countries, from Latin America to Eastern Europe, Africa to Asia. I work as a health educator, focusing on prevention. For example, I talk a lot to people about why eating a balanced diet every day is good for them: in the event that they become ill, their bodies will be strong enough to fend off disease and infection. Their recovery time will be faster, they will miss less days of work, and if their family is eating properly too, they might not get sick at all. This same idea applies to development. If we help countries strengthen their internal systems and infrastructure, when a natural disaster strikes they will be better prepared to cope. The death tolls won’t be off the charts. Recovery time can be cut from decades down to a few years.

This is good for the United States for several reasons. Every time a natural disaster strikes, the US pledges millions of dollars in aid. If the countries hit by disaster were in better condition to start with, they could help themselves and the amount of money we would need to pledge would be less. Likewise, countries better prepared to cope with disaster suffer less economic and political instability during the disaster. This is good for the United States, because in this globalized world, our country has business interests and partnerships in every corner of the planet. Taking care of our neighbors is taking care of us. It’s like a neighborhood watch system, but on a global scale.

We have a way of looking at the news as isolated incidences. Television, newspapers, and the internet bring us the story on a particular situation, but often we miss the big picture, the causes and affects, the lead-up and recovery. We see there is suffering in Haiti now and we want to help now. But when the news coverage ends, our desire to help tends to end with it. Haiti made me realize this tendency in myself. Because of where I am at the moment, because I live every day with people balancing between living poor and dying in poverty, I now understand just how terribly shortsighted our reactions to crisis can be.

We can’t prevent the disasters from happening, but we can mitigate the damage done when they occur. By investing long-term in developing strong infrastructure and economy in our own country and abroad, individuals, families, and communities will be better equipped to deal with potential crisis situations. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

If you’re interested in reading more on economics and poverty check out books by the following authors: Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Amartya Sen.

Note to Editor:

Please include:

Emily Richardson Fanjoy is a 2002 LHS graduate and a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Guatemala. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the Peace Corps. Check out www.peacecorp.gov for more information. Contact the author at emily@hiddentower.com.

Posted by: emily