by George Packer, The New Yorker; January 25, 2010.
When news of the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 Haitians hit the wires in mid January, humanitarian experts knew the final devastation toll would be grim. The extent of the damage of a natural disaster is always compounded by the weakness of existing infrastructure – both physical and political. For years international development observers have reported that Haitians are the poorest people of the Western Hemisphere and their urban infrastructure is woefully inadequate. On that front, Haiti was a disaster waiting to happen. The scale of the damage is staggering.
Haiti’s foundations crumbled under the pressures of the earthquake. The epicenter hit the capital where at least a third of Haitians live, flattening both the presidential palace and UN headquarters, and killing many political and religious leaders whose offices would have been instrumental in orchestrating a domestic response.
In ‘Suffering’, Packer argues that the burden of rescue work in Haiti is not just to provide blankets, food, and temporary shelter to victims of the quake. He writes that Haitian political culture has a “long history of insularity, corruption, and violence, which partly explains why Port-au-Prince lies in ruins.” In order to heal from a devastation of this magnitude, the country and those that donate resources to its aid must channel those monies to the more ambitious and tedious project of working toward a functioning Haitian state.
Just as America’s Hurricane Katrina revealed the poverty in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, the Haitian earthquake has drawn our attention to a neglected place. The natural catastrophe compounded the everyday suffering at work long before the disaster struck. One positive sign that world leaders are listening was the G7’s announcement to officially waive Haiti’s debt obligations. Whether efforts such as this will help rebuild Haiti in the longer term remains to be seen.
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