The irony of Haiti’s tragedy is in the time line. Earthquakes happen suddenly and in seconds. People are rescued from the rubble within a day or two, or not at all. It is all so sudden; one minute normality, the next hell. But, that is not Haiti. That is only a fraction of the story. Haiti has been a country destroyed by history, bad governance and neglect for centuries. Jared Diamond, in his epic on why civilizations collapse, uses Haiti as a show case of catastrophe. He contrasts it with the other half of the island (the Dominican Republic) showing how bad land use and governance have pushed Haiti to the brink of extinction. The first country to declare independence from Slavery and cry freedom in the New World is now its poorest.
According to Daniel Coppard at Development Initiatives, development aid to Haiti in 2008, the last year we have figures for, was $907 million, about the same as the amount of humanitarian aid now flowing in. This works out at around $100 per capita per year to help rebuild roads, counter soil erosion, foster good governance, build the economy. Haiti ranks 32nd on the world listing for Development assistance per capita. Above it are most of the countries on the world’s political watch dog list.
The huge outpouring from the world’s public, a quarter of all the relief aid pledged by mid January 2010, reinforces the light of compassion which, thankfully has not gone out in this world, but in terms of solid political commitment to see a world where all people are treated with dignity, where human rights, liberty and happiness are valued for all, I think not. The rhetoric of the world of development aid is of impartiality, of the equal worth of all, but the reality is otherwise, you have to count politically to count as humanity.
Sadly, it is not just states that play the political opportunist game. An editorial in the Lancet also points out that the big independent aid agencies are not immune to the real-politic of today. NGOs, who dominate the humanitarian business, are large multi-lateral organizations now, and in Haiti we can see the struggle between the urge to help and the urge to survive, survival of the agency that is. All too often the PR machines, advocates and fundraiser get the upper hand with rhetoric and hype drowning out reality and evidence. To quote the Lancet “it may seem unpalatable to scrutinise and criticise the motives and activities of humanitarian organisations. But just like any other industry, the aid industry must be examined, not just financially as is current practice, but also in how it operates from headquarter level to field level. It seems increasingly obvious that many aid agencies sometimes act according to their own best interests rather than in the interests of individuals whom they claim to help.”