Haiti: Another Failing Humanitarian Investment
Previously published on Jan 26, 2011
Tuesday, January 12, 2010 was marked by yet another world crisis in a country far too familiar with the horrors that come with poverty, weak governance, and one natural disaster after another. In the wake of this disaster's one year anniversary, Haiti has scarcely begun to recover. On the one hand, the worst earthquake in two centuries to hit Haiti brought the world together in an effort to alleviate the suffering of some of the most desperate humans on this planet. On the other hand, billions of dollars in foreign aid has not translated into a full recovery despite the Caribbean Island's status as the West's favorite charity case. In fact, the situation in Haiti only appears to deteriorate as follow-up crisis after crisis strikes. As such, we need to reconsider our broader approach to crises of this magnitude.
Americans are inherently investors as we have always pushed forward with an innovative spirit while we have used our gains to build a better future versus accepting stagnation, even when we do not directly benefit. Unfortunately, we and the rest of the world are rather poor investors when it comes to humanitarian aid and global social investments. As David Brooks of the New York Times previously pointed out in his column and during his weekly News Hour appearance on Friday, January 15th, 2010, the world has not been very successful with all the billions of dollars in aid dedicated to places like Haiti. Most likely to blame are our tendencies to inconsistently support endeavors and throw a lot of money at problems.
Although the situation in Haiti was improving before the Earthquake, the reasons for our failures are that our expectations are often too high while we fail to grasp what each nation can do and specifically needs. For instance, we are more likely to pay for schools to be built than to fund the removal of rubble still crowding the streets of Port-au-Prince. Our definition of poverty is very unclear and radically different than what actually counts as a lack of viable living conditions. Accordingly, we expect impoverished nations to rapidly grow into little Americas. In fact, we often look to our own past to tailor their economic recoveries to our image of success versus developing a plan specifically for their interests and their available resources. When they fail to meet our expectations, we leave them then we are later forced to come back.
Meanwhile, aside from supporting the wrong political leaders in unstable regions like Afghanistan, we fear being viewed as an empirical power, thus we like to step back and let the People of a nation make decisions despite their inability and lack of capacity to do so. Quite frankly, we clearly saw the US government dancing around this issue with Haiti when its official government could no longer control its own territory. Instead, we dump money into the hands of people who misuse and abuse it. Beyond these examples, there are certainly other reasons for our failed humanitarian efforts, but we need to start recognizing what we do wrong when engaging, as well as not engaging, foreign governments in crisis.
Furthermore, the situation in Haiti was a complete nightmare of a perfect storm. Not only was much of this population already lacking basic needs while their government was barely functioning, the Earthquake destroyed much of the aid relief capacity in the Country while clogging all major routes into the disaster zone. This was clearly a worse case scenario. Unfortunately, we are going to see a lot more of these catastrophes due to global climate change, growing economic disparities, and conflicts over dwindling resources like oil and drinkable water. The only effective solution is preparation. That is, we need to be better prepared to engage nations in crisis with the best possible strategy for recovery.
First, a week or so into the Haitian crisis, basic needs, i.e. water, sanitation, medical supplies, food, etc., continued to be unmet for much of the affected population. Although aid workers from around the world responded to the best of their ability with the support of the United States military, the first 72 hours was critical to saving the lives of those trapped as well as stemming the spread of disease. Nearly two weeks into a crisis, doctors should not have been amputating people's limbs without pain killers due to a lack of antiseptics and sanitation. This means we must build institutes and rescue technology with the capacity to deploy anywhere around the world in harsh conditions in order to serve large populations in need when these massive disasters occur.
Second, we must learn a better investment strategy. Due to globalization and radical improvements in efficiencies for the manufacturing sector, as well as other industries, brought on by rapid technological advances, jobs have become an increasingly limited resource, especially since new industries are not producing the well-paying jobs we need. It is jobs that allow us to disperse wealth and keep economies going. Regrettably, well-paying jobs for an expanding population in the United States have not been generated by economic growth while traditional jobs have been outsourced or eliminated. Although it was the expectation of economists that service industry jobs would provide for Americans, the Great Recession and the consequences of too much personal debt have largely erased these hopes.
At any rate, the US economy is two-thirds spending and service industry jobs are not necessarily well paying. This means the globalized job market has turned the need for gainful employment into a zero-sum game. As economic disparity grows in the US and other Western nations, the ability to subsidize poorer nations in crisis will diminish. Consequently, nations like Haiti cannot simply survive on the low level outsourced labor spun off from US over-consumption. This means the US needs new industries with better economic opportunities for more people while countries like Haiti must build industries tailored to their needs and capacities for both the International Community and their people. It is here where innovative and technological firms are essential.
Beyond textiles, we can work to buildup their agriculture by improving the fertility of Haitian farmland as well as educating Haitians on better land management. This does not mean importing expensive artificial fertilizers or genetically engineered crops; it means working to improve crops already grown on the island while looking to the sea. We might even look to seaweed for fertilizer and improve sugarcane crops for biofuels. The basic idea is to work with what will work best for the fundamental needs of the Haitians as well as what they might contribute to the global market in time. Our investments into the world need to generate the kind of marketplaces that can be sustained through diversity and innovation, not simply on the scraps of America when we are willing to show pity.
Like the initial response to the Great Haitian Earthquake of 2010, the recovery effort has gone rather poorly. Unfortunately, this is because we have so far been unprepared to address the fundamental faults that undermine nations in crisis like Haiti. It is also important for us to understand recovery in underdeveloped countries is a slow process that must start with well-tailored investment strategies that utilize the natural and human resources of the People in question, not necessarily the needs of the global economy. In addition, we must not impose our standards onto those in crisis as doing so creates unreachable goals. Most significantly, we need to look at what has been done in the past then use what we have learned to develop far more innovative solutions.