Three months after the devastating January 2010 Haiti earthquake, the often-insightful and hilarious satirical newspaper The Onion published the article “Area Man Visits Haiti to Check Up on $10 Donation.” Not surprisingly, the “area man,” Brad Halder, was quite disappointed, saying “to tell you the truth, I was expecting to see more new houses by now.”
Bad news articles about Haiti are irresistible. Haiti is the poorest country within a 3 hour non-stop flight from New York, and Haiti elicits strong reactions and fierce conclusions, meaning a visiting journalist can easily get enough material in a short weekend, without having to bother staying two nights in the difficult capital city of Port-au-Prince.
The fact is, progress in Haiti has been very slow in every way. But as people place blame, or quietly conclude that Haiti is a lost cause, we need to stop and think about what is disaster response and what we really expect when we donate money to help following a disaster.
We just marked the third anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, and, as with the other years, we reflected on the reality that the recovery has been slow, that Haiti is still a mess, and people still wonder “where did the money go?” While these issues are important, they are often overplayed by a media and people who fail to contextualize and compare the Haiti earthquake to other disasters. (More on that in the next blog post.)
It is true that Haiti still faces extensive poverty, weak government and vast homelessness. At the same time, when most of us gave $10 or $100 or $1,000 to help Haiti after the earthquake, we did not think our donation was going to make Haiti the greatest nation on earth.
Most of us were moved by the suffering and death that we saw on the television and we wanted to help save lives and alleviate the immediate suffering. We should not forget this, nor forget the lives that were saved by immediate action, first of all by Haitians, and secondly by international actors. Countless thousands of lives were saved through medical services in damaged hospitals and clinics, distribution of emergency water and food, and provision of shelter supplies in the form of tarps and tents.
CWS has worked extensively with people with disabilities in Haiti, many of whom became disabled because of the earthquake. There are thousands of new amputees in Haiti precisely because emergency medical services were available to amputate and help those who would have died had they been left unaided with such injuries. All this immediate emergency response had a cost — hundreds of millions in the first year alone.
Our sorrow and despair for Haiti after the earthquake gave way to a sort of extreme optimism that this was an “opportunity” for Haiti to “finally” get on its feet. And we all sought to “build back better.” Either we were unrealistic and overestimated what our contributions, and our work, could do. Or we underestimated the challenge of addressing root causes of poverty. It was most probably all of the above.
So, maybe we find ourselves like Brad Halder in The Onion article, disappointed that our $10 hasn’t yet rebuilt Haiti. While we should be sure to find out how our $10 (combined with millions from other donors) was spent, we should also ask which of Haiti’s problems can be solved by money, and which problems require something else, or something more.
By Aaron Tate, CWS’s Haiti earthquake coordinator