The Next Phase

On 12 January, Haiti experienced a 7.0 earthquake.

It was devastating.

Not because it was a 7.0. Because Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. Because Haiti had no infrastructure. The things I take for granted as a Californian, things like earthquake retrofitting, functioning fire stations, and food security, are not available in Haiti.  A 7.0 earthquake can strike varying degrees of damage depending on where it’s located, and from a destructive point of view, I can think of few better places to hit than Haiti.

Within hours, the Internet community was mobilizing. By this I mean that people were adding ribbons to their blogs, Tweeting that what happened in Haiti was sad, and retweeting suggestions to donate via text message to unverified charities. A few folks broke the mold a little; abby jean started writing about the history of development issues in Haiti, for example, and I started writing about how to verify charities, and provided some charity recommendations for people who didn’t have time to look into charities on their own. Some websites started discussing parallels between Haiti and New Orleans, and discussing the long and sordid history of Haiti and the United States. (And, of course, many websites had been doing these things all along!)

What amazed me about the response was that many people were apparently blissfully unaware that there were some problematic historical and ongoing issues between the United States and Haiti. I am not exactly up, by any means, to my shame, on issues in the Caribbean, but I am at least tangentially aware, and I didn’t have to go that far to find information.

It seems like a good idea to find out about how the United States interacts with the rest of the world, and how it is perceived as a country, because this provides me with valuable information to contextualize events which happen around me. If you don’t know about problematic issues, you don’t know why some people around the world have a problem with the United States, and then you’re surprised by things like terrorism. You don’t why what happened in Haiti was so devastating, and how it’s not about rebuilding, at this point, but about trying to build, from scratch, a nation which was torn apart before the earthquake. The fact is that the United States has been heavily involved in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America for, well, forever, and that we continue to be, and it has lasting repercussions. Politically. Socially. Culturally.

And what made me sad about the response was that it followed the same trajectory as all Internet memes. Today, almost three weeks after the earthquake, how much coverage is there? How many people still have ribbons on their blogs? How many people are continuing to donate? How many people are repeating the catchphrase “hope for Haiti”?

What people don’t seem to realize is that you can’t fix disasters by throwing money at them. Yes. Haiti needed aid immediately. And it’s good that people donated and mobilized and tried to help make that aid happen. But where was it before? Where was it when Haiti needed earthquake preparedness? Where was it when Haiti needed to overhaul its infrastructure?

And the other thing people don’t seem to realize is that you don’t recover from a disaster in a week. Look at New Orleans, where uninhabitable storm-damaged homes are still standing and people are still homeless. Haiti needs long term support and assistance. The nation has needed help with a public health crisis for years and continues to need that help.

You know, sometimes I love the Internet, and sometimes I hate it. I saw someone referring to the outpouring in the immediate wake of the earthquake as “Bono activism.” It’s feel good, short term, and doesn’t require any introspection. And I feel bad saying this; some of those donations did help and I know what it’s like to feel like you are standing by and doing nothing, so you do something. It sounds like I am harshing on those donors, and to some extent I am, because they are reflective of a larger trend, but I am not trying to belittle the help that they offered.

Text $5 to Haiti and forget about it! Put a ribbon on your blog, because that shows you are supportive!

Don’t think about the issues. Don’t wonder about how your nation might have been complicit in what happened. Don’t think about the long-term impacts of events like devastating earthquakes. You covered your bases when it happened, you aren’t under an obligation to do anything else. You looked at pictures in the newspaper and you felt sad, so you’re square.

What we need to be asking ourselves here is why the infrastructure in a nation less than 1,000 miles from the United States was allowed to collapse. That would be like ignoring the total collapse of the State of Kansas. (Or, for a more immediate parallel, the State of California.)

What we need to be asking ourselves is how many other nations are in situations as precarious as Haiti’s, and what we, the global community and the community in the United States, should be doing about that.

This didn’t need to happen. The fact that it did is a travesty, and it reflects very poorly on us as human beings that we couldn’t bring ourselves to care enough to take steps to prevent it, and to support organizations working on the ground to prevent it. People knew that this was a risk and they were talking about it and they were ignored. And it’s going to continue to be a risk, in Haiti and elsewhere, because people think that they have discharged their duty now that the earthquake is over.

No. Our duty is not over.

3 Replies to “The Next Phase”

  1. Allowed to collapse? Set up to collapse.

    And I am saving up to buy a bumper sticker, if I can find one, that says “Awareness is not action.”

  2. My sister in law does social service work in Florida; many of her employees and clients are Haitian immigrants. So she’s been kind of very much in this and it’s rough on everyone. No one knows much of anything for certain and the news is all filtered through the “poorest nation in the western hemisphere” narrative. (With the occasional flash of “No actually people are very orderly at the distribution stations” coming through. And we keep hearing about how the US military keeps getting in the way of just about everything and local police shoot people trying to get toothpaste to plug their noses with because Port-au-Prince doesn’t exactly smell real great any more.

    And yes: The US is directly complicit in and culpable for the current state of Haiti’s economy. Not entirely; France shares some of that and the IMF/World Bank has a slice, but we’ve got a big chunk of it. The US interfered with Haitian governance in favor of corporate sugar interests, supported the vile Duvalier dictatorships as part of our Communism-containment strategies (and it remains to be seen if that, the War on Drugs®, or the War on Terror® will have ultimately been more damaging), and stood by while the French removed most of the wealth from the country for a century or so. And our already-hideous immigration policy officially treats Haitian immigrants worse than anyone else in the world.

    I’m not telling you, mel, anything you don’t already know. I’m just ranting. It makes me so frustrated/angry/boggled that some people think we’ve never done anything wrong ever and would read the above and think I hate my country. I don’t. I like my country and I’m glad I live here. I just won’t ignore what we’ve done.

  3. I’ve always said that the greatest patriots are those who recognize the need for improvement and work to achieve it. I like my country too, and I’d like to work on making it a better place to live, and a better citizen on the global stage.

    I think one of the big problems in the United States, something that abby brought up elsewhere over the weekend, is that people lack access to information and they do not know how to go about finding it. I am often taken aback and disturbed to realize how little people know about what is going on in the world, and it’s not always their fault; I think one of the major ways to effect change in this country would be to make this sort of information impossible to escape, so that people would be confronted with it and forced to examine it. People should (by which I don’t mean “people have an obligation to know”/”how can people not know this,” but rather “this is information which should be freely available and easy to access.”) know all of the stuff you discussed here (and sooooo much more) and yet they don’t.

    I remember being shocked when I went to college and fellow students were astounded, simply astounded, by things like the history of US involvement in Latin America. Things which I was learning in middle school because I went to a highly liberal and progressive school. It was a real wakeup call for me when I realized that things I thought of as common knowledge were new and amazing to many people.

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