Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti as the "trendy" charity of the moment

I notice a great deal of legitimate concern for Haiti as I monitor the social networks. The earthquake is an unthinkable catastrophe to this island nation with a history of poverty, exploitation and slavery. It is incredibly sad to watch the reports of the devastation. Added to the sadness is the realization that this small country was a disaster long before the buildings shook and collapsed.

My concern is the reactive mentality that is seen in the West when it comes to donating to worthy causes. What’s ignored is the roots of why some of these disasters are so extreme. The tendency to react rather than prevent is counter-productive. Instead of pre-emptive warfare, the West needs to realize the value of pre-emptive disaster planning and compassionate aid.

I watched Obama, Bush and Clinton with skepticism and a touch of cynicism as they announced their charity for Haiti. After all, their neoliberal economics have contributed to the poverty of the island nation.

Haiti is a desperately poor country, with few skilled workers, and has barely survived over the years from crippling Western loans and high interest rates. Consequently, it is one of the most debt-ridden nations in the Western hemisphere. During the embargo imposed after the coup on Aristide in 1991, Haiti’s unemployment rate increased significantly. This was due to the fact that their manufacturing industry depended upon foreign supplies (mostly from the United States) to keep it’s exports and GDP off life support.

What Haiti and many other nations in the southern hemisphere need are interest free loans, outright grants, education, basic supplies and the opportunity for self-determination. They do NOT need more disaster capitalism. Naomi Klein defines this as multi-nationals coming in, “investing” in the economy, making an already dire situation worse and taking all the profits back home. Nations are particularly vulnerable after natural or other disasters.

When we look at a nation like Haiti, we must ask ourselves: What could have been done to prevent the severity of this tragedy? The United States and other nations of the West could have taken some of their immense wealth and worked with the people of Haiti to develop a sustainable and safe infrastructure with sound building policies. They could have given greater efforts towards training doctors and ensuring adequate medical supplies. They could have initiated more food programs. They could have created economic policies free of restrictions in regards to government actions and democratic elections.

The memory of the Haitian crisis will fade from the minds of people around the world just as the tsunami, Katrina and Gaza did before it. In another month or two things will return to the status quo. Meanwhile the people of Haiti will continue to re-build their country for years to come, just as the victims of the tsunami, Katrina and Gaza are still doing today.

The victims receive millions in initial contributions, and are then left to fend for themselves with their economic status rarely improving over the long term. The giving to Haiti and other nations going through times of great need is commendable. However, a change in the base motives and methods of Western giving must occur. A re-distribution of wealth to help those who do NOT have that “equal opportunity” so often associated with “personal responsibility” is crucial BEFORE an emergency arises. Only then can we have a more peaceful, less desperate world. Only then can we work to achieve a level of equality commensurate with the great resources of the world.

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