Country, City, Service
I spent the better part of this past year researching a book project—Country, City, Service—that was in part a case study of a Haitian American family and also partly a response to the phrase “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” a phrase that has become so commonplace that one friend recently referred to it as Haiti’s prevailing suffix.
Unyielding proclamations of Haiti as the poorest country in our hemisphere arguably have made indices supporting this designation secondary, if not altogether negligible, and risked becoming self-fulfilling prophecy. Even though Haiti regularly ranks at the bottom of the Americas in the annual Human Development Index (HDI) put out by the United Nations Development Programme, the presence of three of Haiti’s Caribbean counterparts—Barbados, Cuba, and the Bahamas—in the top ten of HDI rankings for the Western Hemisphere suggests that a transformation is not impossible for Haiti. That these small islands have been able to maintain socio-economic development is often an afterthought in mainstream accounts of a shifting global order, which tend to be infatuated with burgeoning superpowers Brazil, China, and India. Ironically, this quest to forecast twenty-first-century superpowers is taking place alongside conversations extolling the virtues of a smaller planet and the resurgence of traditional practices, such as urban farming, in American cities like Detroit and New York where residents are craving a return to a simpler, pastoral, nineteenth-century way of life. It was my contention that this broader embrace of a new ethos would prove immensely helpful in Haiti’s attempts at becoming a twenty-first-century success story in the Americas. And then came the earthquake.
On January 12, Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, was hit by an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. Writing in the New York Times two days later, columnist David Brooks offered an apt contrast:
On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died.
This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story.
To put Brooks’ declaration in further context, Hurricane Katrina, widely regarded as one of this nation’s largest natural disasters, resulted in a comparatively few 1,836 deaths, even with an emergency management response that was widely criticized for overwhelming failures. Like Katrina, the megadisaster in Port-au-Prince was unforeseen but not unexpected. Just as experts had warned New Orleans and federal officials for decades that the city’s levees would eventually succumb to a category 4 hurricane, Haitian leaders had been summarily briefed about what would happen if an earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, a city precariously residing on a fault line. In spite of these warnings, leadership in New Orleans and Port-au-Prince were unable to marshal the necessary resources to prepare for these impending disasters.
Brooks’ statement also echoes economist Paul Collier’s declaration that Haitians are disproportionately impacted by their involuntary enrollment among the “bottom billion”—residents of countries failing to keep pace with an “increasingly sophisticated world economy,” countries that are “falling behind and often falling apart.” In spite of his inclusion of Haiti among the sixty countries that make up the bottom billion in his 2007 book of the same name, Collier spent most of 2009 lauding Haiti’s potential to extricate itself from that list. According to his January 2009 report to the United Nations, Haiti possesses a number of characteristics that bode well for its future development, including:
- Haiti does not have the intractable structural socio-political problems that beset most other fragile states.
- The Haitian diaspora in North America is proportionately one of the largest in the world. It provides Haiti with a massive flow of remittances, a reservoir of skills, and a powerful political lobby.
Collier’s UN report was widely praised by Haiti supporters for reiterating what many had been saying for decades: “Haiti is not hopeless.” And when former U.S. President Bill Clinton was named as the United Nations special envoy to Haiti and charged with the implementation of Collier’s recommendations, it appeared this hope was on the cusp of realization.
In Katrina’s aftermath, New Orleans became a virtual laboratory for a broad array of social service initiatives, resulting in unparalleled reforms of the city’s educational and housing infrastructures. It is not clear what the future holds for Haiti. Haiti has long been ahead of New Orleans as far as the number of non-governmental organizations operating locally, and after the earthquake this number will increase exponentially. However, what cannot be understated is that the desire of Haitian Americans and international allies to get “on the ground” is second only to the desire of Haitians to rescue their relatives and neighbors from the rubble and figure out ways to survive this latest catastrophe.
As William O’Neil asserted in the first essay appearing in this series, “Once the emergency phase is over, Haitians, with strong support from the international donor community, must finally strive to build a state worthy of its people.” Haiti has a diaspora within close proximity that has skills comparable to those of the Peace Corps units deployed across the globe in the 1960s, and on the island there are countless citizens with a bevy of vocational and administrative skills who are desperately in need of work, akin to the Americans who revamped the infrastructure of the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. If leveraged appropriately, this human capital could alter Haiti’s prospects for the good and lead its people out of the bottom billion.