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I have two books to blame for my slow reading spell this past month. One, Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, was almost poetic, and I spent considerable time re-reading it (something I am not usually wont to do). The second, Haiti After the Earthquake, simply took me forever, although I am glad I read it.

haiti

On January 12, 2010, at close to five in the evening, the earth shook  for about thirty seconds. In the hours and months that followed, horrific estimates of the dead, destroyed and injured emerged. More than two hundred thousand were dead, a million were injured, and more than a million were left homeless. Twenty thousand had to undergo amputations. Most municipal buildings were destroyed or gravely damaged. This included the Presidential Palace, the National Assembly, City Hall, and the main jail. Many primary and secondary schools were also destroyed, as were some major universities.

And yet, the devastation was not entirely natural. Indeed, it might even be called unnatural, as Evan Lyon insists it is:

The disaster on January 12, 2010 was…an absolutely unnatural disaster at the dangerous intersection of a natural trigger…and an absolutely unnatural vulnerability created in Haiti by centuries of political, environmental, and social forces.

An earthquake is only as catastrophic as the buildings and other physical infrastructure in the area are weak. Haiti’s Port-au-Prince area, where the quake hit, was not only overcrowded, but the offices and schools and hospitals that housed the people of the city were poorly engineered and constructed, and came crushing down on them all too soon. It is estimated that 95% of buildings in Haiti are self-constructed, and in the absence of a national building code, these structures were downright dangerous. If man made conditions allowed this natural disaster to result in unnatural loss, they also delayed the recovery of the country and its people.

Haiti’s challenges are many, and deeply rooted in its troubled history. Born of a slave revolt, Haiti is the world’s first black republic. However, the Haitians’ victory in achieving freedom proved pyrrhic. The world, or at least that part of it that it had dealings with, was openly hostile and actively thwarted Haiti’s growth with unfair trade policies and crippling debts.

During the twentieth century, Haiti had survived a foreign occupation (followed by various regimes of short duration, none properly elected), a twenty-nine-year-long family dictatorship with scant interest in long-term development, a series of military-civilian juntas, brief democratic rule, more coups, and the slow sundering of a once united popular movement.

Political instability only exacerbated the nation’s intractable poverty. The country has been plagued by social, economic, and ecological problems – “shoddy housing, bare hillsides and overfished waters, scarce access to clean water and modern sanitation, an undesirable business environment, cash-strapped health and school systems, high structural unemployment…”. The earthquake was the proverbial straw on the camel’s back, an acute event that pushed an existing chronic condition to beyond breaking point. The Port-au-Prince area is as crowded as the countryside is silent – bereft even of the scant services offered in the capital. The concentration of public services in Port-au-Prince meant that “many died or were maimed at the time of the quake because they came to the capital to study or simply apply for a passport.” Those that were uncovered from the rubble alive were laid under the open sky. Painkillers, X-ray machines, operating supplies and rooms, why, even basic supplies were insufficient for the vast ocean of human beings with crushed limbs and uncertain futures. Indeed, these supplies and services were never nearly enough, even in pre-quake Haiti. And so, “twenty-first-century people die(d) of nineteenth century afflictions – minor injuries and simple fractures as well as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other infections, such as tetanus, preventable with a vaccine available for pennies”. Conditions in quake-ravaged Haiti also proved ripe for a cholera epidemic that struck in October of 2010, and killed around 8,000 more people.

The earth would have shook anyway, but did so many have to fall?

The international community responded with generosity. A staggering $9.9 billion of reconstruction pledges were made on March 31, 2010, at a donor conference. But deploying the aid effectively was another story. “Everyone wanted to help, but no one knew exactly what to do”. Take the case of the “young Canadian man who, wanting to help out in Haiti, flew to the Dominican Republic and drove west to Port-au-Prince without much in the way of cash – or anything other than his goodwill. Before long, he ran out of money, and the Canadian embassy had to help send him home. It was meant as a lesson about the importance of planning and the shortcomings of goodwill alone.”

Farmer writes at length about the need to invest in Haiti’s people, in its government and public institutions (instead of directing funds through not-for-profits),  to lead to sustainable and equitable development and local capacity building for Haiti so that the nation can thrive without continued dependence on foreign assistance. Haiti needs more jobs, local business development, watershed protection, alternative energies, access to food, water, education and healthcare, and not just in Port-au-Prince.

Farmer’s account is long. Important, but long. An essay in this book, “Lopital Jeneral Struggles to Survive”, by Dr. Evan Lyon of Partners in Health, offers a much shorter, thoughtfully written, equally poignant account of many of the aspects of the disaster. 

Haitians have long been celebrated for their resilience in the face of hardships. But, as a young Haitian says in the book:

If being resilient means that we’re able to suffer much more than other people, it’s really not a compliment.

It is not. This characterization is a sad reminder of the inequalities in this world.

On a different note, I wish Farmer did not try so hard to tell us how much he adores President Clinton. However, I do note that Farmer, like all of us,  is not beyond criticism, but this book is ultimately not about Farmer, or Clinton. It is about Haiti.

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