What to do about Haiti?

What to do about Haiti? That’s a question on so many people’s lips right now, as the toll of last week’s powerful earthquake becomes evident to the world through graphic news reports and images. What to do about Haiti?
The reality is that people working in development have been wondering what to do about Haiti long before the country’s buildings collapsed. Like Liberia, Somalia, and Afghanistan, Haiti has always possessed particular infamy as a “failed state”. In fact, Haiti’s social construction has been close to collapse for years. Though few of us have bothered to notice.

Now, as only disasters have the ability to do, this earthquake has managed to momentarily focus the world’s attention on the acute suffering of a long-suffering people.

The news coverage has left me feeling invigorated, depressed, perplexed. I’ll start with invigorated because I so rarely feel that emotion watching the news: the Disaster Emergency Committee, an umbrella organisation for 13 international relief organisations, reported that 10 million pounds was raised from the public worldwide in 24 hours after news of the earthquake. This without telethons or photo montages set to weepy music. I keep waiting for the jaded public — saturated with bad news, suspect of the authorities’ ability to do anything about that news – to simply shrug and send their best wishes. But they don’t. Time and again people around the world write the cheque or set up the debit order, usually without even telling their friends.

10 million pounds in 24 hours? It’s a powerful testament to the potential for human compassion. Numbers like that leave me feeling humbled and embarrassed of my citified, cynical voice that so often shouts out over the charity appeals. People like me should know when to shut up. Because most people want to help, and that fact should not be ignored by those of us whose emotional response to so many crises is simply a shrug.

OK, now moving on to depressed. Depressed about whether all this money is actually having the intended effect. Watching the media reports feels like seeing a great Tragedy being performed yet again on one of the worlds’ most rickety stages. Authorities unable to quickly deliver aid, rising pubic restlessness, anger at the slow response. Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami, always this gnawing sense that “we” should do better, that “they” deserve better. That somehow the poverty of the victims results in a particularly poor response. And I’m not sure what I find more depressing: that people who’ve never stepped foot in a place like Haiti –even before an earthquake – assume they know how long it should take to deal with it. (It took me two weeks to open a bank account in Zimbabwe, so I can only imagine the logistic nightmare of trying to get anything done in the wake of an earthquake in an already devastated society.) Or do I, too, feel depressed by the fact that authorities don’t seem to learn any lessons from one natural disaster to the next, that from a distance we’re left with the impression that the responses aren’t getting swifter or more effective?

All I know is that, as usual, there seems to be more donations than anyone can rightfully make use of. There’s always this guilty fervour to raise hundreds of millions – billions!—in the wake of a disaster. But maybe we should wait to see how the first hundred million gets used and hold another fundraiser in a month? Problem is, of course, that by then we’ll be distracted. So as the calls for aid continue, I’m just waiting for the coda to the tragedy: how much money was misused, how much went missing. As far as I’m concerned it’s a question of when the stories will hit the press, not if. But maybe that’s just my cynical, citified voice looking for an excuse to pipe up.

I’ll end with perplexed, because that’s so often how I end my pieces. Perplexed at how we harness all this international compassion, this international cooperation, in order to address the world’s more mundane, everyday disasters. Hundreds of thousands of people quietly suffer every day as a result of disease, poverty, abuse, neglect, and corruption. Yet few of us feel compelled to help them. Tragedies like earthquakes place reality in stark relief: all victims, no villains; the need for water and food –commodities dropped from the sky—so clear. “They” need us, and “we” know exactly what role to play. Natural disasters seem to make our charitable choices for us.

But can we mobilize this latent international goodwill to address murkier, more complex man-made disasters? If the world can raise 10 million pounds in a day for a devastated Caribbean island, imagine what we could do if our attention was focussed on clean water or food shortages or HIV/AIDS? Who knows, maybe we’d just keep generating a lot of money with little impact. Or maybe we’d unleash a degree of enterprise and emotion currently lacking from so many bloated, rote aid efforts. To my mind, governments and charities need to focus fresh attention on how this compassion, if properly fostered and channelled, could result in the “change” that we all hope to see.

Because surely one day this compassion will run out. And surely that day, the day that the public actually does just shrug in response to some tragedy, it’s not just the poor victims that will suffer. On that day the whole world will find itself feeling a much poorer place.

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