Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hopeless Haiti

The big earthquake that hit Port au Prince has caused casualties in the hundreds of thousands, but Haiti has hardly any hospitals and some of those likely have collapsed. Even with the best relief efforts of other countries, only a small fraction of injured Haitians will be able to access professional health care during the next few weeks. It's going to be really ugly over there.

Having been in Haiti on two occasions in the early 1990's, I can easily envision the chaos that has ensued following the earthquake. Almost all buildings were constructed of substandard concrete block with little or no reinforcement, so they fell down when the first big shake occurred. The sharp, heavy blocks were perfect for killing or maiming people. And even in the best of times, injured people relied on friends to get them to the hospital because the few ambulances served only the very rich. Today, most of the injured have no place to go and no way to get there, anyway. The unmitigated agony must be surreal.

Haiti's warm climate and the inputs of cheap food and clothing from outside has allowed its millions of poor citizens to live at a very low standard. Developed counties send used clothing to Haiti, so even the poorest have something to wear. Shelter from heat and rain can provided by a corrugated metal panel supported by whatever will hold it up, with concrete blocks being the upscale solution. Typical food for the poor is basic, such as rice and beans with a tasty flavoring; meat is available for those who have money, as are tropical fruits such as plantains. Water is often provided by communal supplies that people access with bottles and buckets. In normal times, therefore, millions of Haitians live on the edge but survive because they have what they need to stay alive. However, nobody wants to get sick or injured because medical care is spotty at best.

The Haitian economy is primitive. When I was there, it was a cash or barter economy for most people. However, a few oligarchs controlled the few industries that can operate in Haiti - rum production and small factories, mostly, and the oligarchs lived well. In addition, many people received payments from funds transferred in by family members living in the U.S. or elsewhere outside the country. Small businesses such as corner stores and bars were common, all protected by iron bars on windows and doors to ward off theft. People got around by walking or paying to ride on brightly painted trucks of all sizes that had large platforms with wooden seats built into their beds. The population was very resourceful, however, and most people found ways to earn the small amounts of money they needed to survive. Charities often provided a buffer for the destitute.

One would be amazed at the lack of infrastructure in Haiti. Few areas had running water or sewers, and electricity was often not available due to the rationing of power from generating stations. Food was usually cooked on charcoal stoves, the charcoal coming from what few trees were left in a country once 97% forested. Most roads were hard-packed gravel, and major highways were two lanes wide. Rainstorms in the rainy season often created wash-outs, and I remember seeing a major stream running down the main street of the town where I worked; one walked across the street by stepping from large stone to large stone amidst the running water. This was normal.

From the above description, you may better understand the impact of the earthquake. In a subsistence economy there are no resources for dealing with emergencies. Damaged water supplies and roads prevent people from accessing the basics needed for life, so even those who were not harmed by the earthquake will be desperate. With millions needing assistance, the relief efforts must be massive to deal with immediate needs. Who knows how long it will take to get the country back to "normal"? It will be a long time.

I found the Haitian people to be friendly, very nice looking, and generally happy despite their deprivation. Many, including the poor, were quite intelligent and creative. Their problems were mostly related to living in a country that had little to offer in terms of output; where there is no production and no valuable natural resources, there is no money. Yet the availability of basics made it possible for Haitians to grow the population, thereby limiting the resources available to each individual. Under these conditions, I saw little that would give the average person any hope for getting ahead. Now, the earthquake has crushed whatever hope there was. The "failed state" of Haiti has descended into a state of hell.

What can be done? In my view, only a benevolent dictator regime can pull Haiti out of its mess over a long period. With no internal resources, foreign aid is the only hope - but endemic corruption will result in the looting of this aid unless extremely tough standards are applied. Because the society has ingrained corruption and few who are trained managers, outsiders would need to provide most of the leadership during the recovery period. However, I doubt Haitians would accept such an approach unless it was maintained by a level of force that would make liberals cringe. Even concepts such as enforced birth control would have to be considered in this dire situation. Who would impose such a regime? Probably nobody. So, don't pay much attention to those who predict Haiti will recover. The best outcome will likely be a return to a client state supported by international aid and living on the edge - until the next crisis again brings chaos.


Anonymous said...

I like reading the perspective of someone who has actually been there and knows the land and the people.

I think traditionally impoverished women have been very receptive to birth control- if you can get the men on board.

I would like to see some sort of modified Marshall Plan for Haiti. China managed to turn their economy around based mostly on cheap labor- it seems like Haiti is in a position to do the same.

I don't really think an overbearing use of force will be necessary, once order has been restored. I think as long as things are trending better most people will be willing to get on board.

Lifehiker said...

Thomas, the one thing I didn't mention is that Haiti's educational program is modeled on the old French program of humanities. Educated young Haitians can discuss Descartes but can't understand a spark plug...

On my second trip there, one of my companions was the finest general surgeon in Rochester - a genius of medicine - but the Haitian doctors in our hospital would not allow him in the operating room. Incidentally, that hospital would also not take my blood because I was white...never forget that!

As I said before, Haitians like the easy life that the tropical climate allows. It's slow and it's social. But modernity requires a bit more emphasis on serious education, a bit more drive, and a government that rewards professionals over cronies. Unlikely in Haiti...