Obviously, there was an earthquake in Haiti this past week, followed by a huge aftershock today. While reports of the earthquake tend to make clear that this is Haiti’s largest earthquake in 200 years, media talking heads rarely explain why these details matters. Homes in the Caribbean are made of cement, protecting people from hurricanes, not earthquakes. As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, construction can be shoddy because folks cut corners to save money.
More importantly, the constraints around responding to the quake exacerbate the injury done in the short-term and long-term. Problems with aid and its dispersal lay in the lack of Haitian infrastructure to begin with. What happens when a natural disaster hits a region already suffering from “state-of-emergency” conditions? What happens when a country cannot feed itself, let alone weave the safety net it needs? How do we now imagine and approach solutions when media fails to expose underlying causes of the man-made disaster, before and after the earthquake?
The best response I’ve seen so far in the mainstream media has been from the International Crisis Group: “Haiti has sustained what may be the most severe natural disaster ever in the Western Hemisphere. Its historically weak physical and institutional infrastructure, and the sad fact that the earthquake’s heaviest blow was delivered to the capital city’s core, have only compounded Haiti’s vulnerability.” By physical infrastructure, consider this—when I was in Haiti, we drove on a national highway. Portions near the city of Cap Haitien (the second largest city) was paved, the rest was not. Rocks and gravel covered it, restricting our speed to about 30 miles an hour. Institutional infrastructure? Consider that public transportation either did not exist or was not organized. Hitching rides in empty trucks can be a way of life, yet in this situation it cannot save lives. Worse, remember that international loans have pressured the country to invest in exports rather than social services that would have provided the foundation for faster recovery.
The Group also writes: “No matter how much the United States gives, there cannot be enough relief for the desperately needy victims in the time frame that anyone would want.” However, they stop short of critiquing U.S. policy in the Caribbean. They only state that the U.S. has “special obligations” in supporting Haiti because the “two countries have shared long historical engagement, both negative and positive.” This history of engagement includes political and economic policies that has led to weak infrastructure and high population density around one city. I also fear that the title of this response, “In for a decade, not just a year,” would also support beliefs that the U.S. should continue to intervene in Haitian governance. Maybe then it’s alright that this response is tucked in quietly to the NYTimes rather than in the front page as the main analysis of the earthquake.
For more critical, progressive information on the earthquake, check out the links compiled here. Also, as we open up our checkbooks, let’s be smart about what organizations will truly support the Haitian people. Pass it on.