An earthquake of magnitude seven would be devastating for any country. In the wake of such force, death and destruction is tragically inevitable. However, the repercussions for Haiti, this small ill-fated Caribbean country, will be worse than almost anywhere else in the world, because of the long-term political, economic and cultural context that surrounds today’s natural disaster.
There is a story often told among Haitians that when the Spanish came to Hispaniola (the small island shared between the Dominican Republic and Haiti) they surrendered Haiti to the devil in order to dedicate the Dominican Republic to God. When you consider their relative situations it is not hard to see why this myth is so commonly believed.
Even before today’s tragic events Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Nearly 80% of its population live on less than US$2 a day. Only 62% of its adult population are literate and 25% are in any form of employment and 30% have sanitation in their homes. By crossing a seemingly meaningless geographical border into the Dominican Republic the average person could expect their life expectancy to increase by over 12 years and to be seven times wealthier, according to the World Bank.
The political situation in Haiti has much to do with its continued economic ruin. Whereas the Dominican Republic has been able to make tourist industry hay, with its warm climate and Caribbean beaches, Haiti’s long history of political instability has led it to be considered “dangerous” by most foreign offices. In 2006 a democratically elected leftwing government came to power, with the promise of a new beginning for Haiti’s poor. Predictably very little progress has been made in the last four years despite substantial amounts of aid pouring in.
Speaking to state officials in Port au Prince last month, for a project working with vulnerable children for Jubilee Action, almost all agreed with the analysis of foreign NGOs on the cause of this stagnation: corruption. Tales of foreign aid being used on palatial homes for ministers or as bribes by officials standing for election are told and laughed about in the halls of power. Perhaps there is faint hope that today’s earthquake will concentrate the minds of those who control aid to Haiti on the humanitarian cost of the government’s failure to make any progress in providing suitable homes for its population, never mind education or healthcare.
Haiti’s cultural traditions also have their part to play in making the standard of living there lower than anywhere in the Caribbean and most of Sub-Saharan Africa. The prevailing belief in voodoo continues to mean that many Haitians reject modern medicine in favour of more traditional practices. A visit to the village witch doctor is for many Haitian parents the first port of call when their child falls ill. Without access to clean water and without treatment for basic illnesses the child mortality rate in Haiti is one in five, with diarrhoea, malaria and TB the most common causes of death.
Ironically for the only country ever to have had a successful slave revolt, child enslavement is also a culturally accepted practice in Haiti. Across the country it is estimated that 300,000 children between eight and 15 are kept as restaveks, unpaid domestic labourers, by wealthier host families. Over 75% of the restaveks are girls and sexual abuse by the men of the house is common.
It is clear to anyone who has been to Port au Prince that this recent disaster, like the hurricanes in 2008, will be catastrophic for the Haitian people who already live with nothing. The fear is that like in 2008, aid will pour into the country from well-meaning donors, only to be siphoned off, one state level at a time. This time the international community must acknowledge the wider issues Haiti faces and, once the immediate emergency is over, develop an approach to Haiti with its people and its children at the core. There is hope, when the EU gave money to build roads to a contractor not the government, Haiti got its first serviceable roads. We can help the Haitian people, not just in the immediate aftermath, but in the long-term. We have models for how this can be achieved. Now it would be irresponsible not to.
Caroline Saunders, the director of Jubilee Action, a Christian charity.