Published: January 26, 2010Posted in: Paul Shirley
I do not know if what I’m about to write makes me a monster. I do know that it makes me a part of a miniscule minority, if Internet trends and news stories of the past weeks are any guide.
“It”, is this:
I haven’t donated a cent to the Haitian relief effort. And I probably will not.
I haven’t donated to the Haitian relief effort for the same reason that I don’t give money to homeless men on the street. Based on past experiences, I don’t think the guy with the sign that reads “Need You’re Help” is going to do anything constructive with the dollar I might give him. If I use history as my guide, I don’t think the people of Haiti will do much with my money either.
In this belief I am, evidently, alone. It seems that everyone has jumped on the “Save Haiti” bandwagon. To question the impulse to donate, then, will probably be viewed as analogous with rooting for Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, or the Spice Girls.
My wariness has much to do with the fact that the sympathy deployed to Haiti has been done so unconditionally. Very few have said, written, or even intimated the slightest admonishment of Haiti, the country, for putting itself into a position where so many would be killed by an earthquake.
I can’t help but wonder why questions have not been raised in the face of this outpouring of support. Questions like this one:
Shouldn’t much of the responsibility for the disaster lie with the victims of that disaster?
Before the reader reaches for his or her blood pressure medication, he should allow me to explain. I don’t mean in any way that the Haitians deserved their collective fate. And I understand that it is difficult to plan for the aftermath of an earthquake. However, it is not outside the realm of imagination to think that the citizens of a country might be able to: A) avoid putting themselves into a situation that might result in such catastrophic loss of life. And B) provide for their own aid, in the event of such a catastrophe.
Imagine that I’m a caveman. Imagine that I’ve chosen to build my house out of balsa wood, and that I’m building it next to a roaring river because I’ve decided it will make harvesting fish that much easier. Then, imagine that my hut is destroyed by a flood.
Imagining what would happen next is easier than imagining me carrying a caveman’s club. If I were lucky enough to survive the roaring waters that took my hut, my tribesmen would say, “Building next to the river was pretty dumb, wasn’t it?.” Or, if I weren’t so lucky, they’d say, “At least we don’t have to worry about that moron anymore.”
Sure, you think, but those are cavemen. We’re more civilized now – we help each other, even when we make mistakes.
True enough. But what about when people repeat their mistakes? And what about when they do things that obviously act against their own self-interests?
In the case of mistakes and warnings as applied to Haiti, I don’t mean to indict those who ignored actual warnings against earthquakes, of which there were many before the recent one. Although it would have been prudent to pay heed to those, I suppose.
Instead, I’m referring to the circumstances in which people lived. While the earthquake was, obviously, unavoidable, the way in which many of the people of Haiti lived was not. Regrettably, some Haitians would have died regardless of the conditions in that country. But the fact that so many people lived in such abject poverty exacerbated the extent of the crisis.
How could humans do this to themselves? And what’s being done to stop it from happening again?
After the tsunami of 2004, the citizens of the world wailed and donated and volunteered for cleanup, rarely asking the important – and, I think, obvious – question: What were all those people doing there in the first place? Just as important: If they move back to a place near the ocean that had just been destroyed by a giant wave, shouldn’t our instinct be to say, “Go ahead if you want, but you’re on your own now.”?
We did the same after Hurricane Katrina. We were quick to vilify humans who were too slow to respond to the needs of victims, forgetting that the victims had built and maintained a major city below sea level in a known target zone for hurricanes. Our response: Make the same mistake again. Rebuild a doomed city, putting aside logic as we did.
And now, faced with a similar situation, it seems likely that we will do the same.
Shouldn’t there be some discourse on how the millions of dollars that are being poured into Haiti will be spent? And at least a slight reprimand for the conditions prior to the earthquake? Some kind of inquisition? Something like this?:
Dear Haitians –
First of all, kudos on developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Your commitment to human rights, infrastructure, and birth control should be applauded.
As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it’s possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?
The Rest of the World
It shouldn’t be outlandish to hope that we might stop short of the reactionary word that is so often flung about after natural (and unnatural) disasters. That word: Rebuild. Thus, the tired, knee-jerk cycle of aid/assist/rebuild would be replaced by a new one: Aid/assist/let’s-stop-and-think-before-we-screw-this-up-again.
If forced to do so through logic-colored glasses, no one would look at Haiti and think, “You know what? It was a great idea to put 10 million people on half of an island. The place is routinely battered by hurricanes (in 2008, $900 million was lost/spent on recovery from them), it holds the aforementioned title of poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, and it happens to sit on a tectonic fault line.”
If it were apparent that Haiti would likely rebuild in an earthquake-resistant way, and if a cure could be found for hurricane abuse of island nations, then maybe one could imagine putting a sustained effort into rebuilding the place. But that would only be feasible if the country had shown any ability to manage its affairs in the past, which it has not done.
I can tell, based on my own reaction to that last sentence, that it might strike a nerve. The reader might be tempted to think, “We can’t blame the people of Haiti for their problems. Surely it’s someone else’s fault.” A similar sentiment can be found in this quote, from article on the geology behind the quake:
“Unfortunately, [Haiti]’s government was not in a position to really do much to prepare for the inevitable large earthquake, leaving tens of thousands to suffer the consequences.”
The sentiment expressed is one of outrage at the government. But, ultimately, the people in a country have control over their government. One could argue that in totalitarian regimes, they do not have much control, but in the end, it is their government. And therefore, their responsibility. If the government is not doing enough for the people, it is the people’s responsibility to change the government. Not the other way around.
Additionally, some responsibility for the individual lies with that individual.
A Haitian woman, days after the earthquake:
“We need so much. Food, clothes, we need everything. I don’t know whose responsibility it is, but they need to give us something soon,” said Sophia Eltime, a mother of two who has been living under a bed sheet with seven members of her extended family. (From an AP report.)
Obviously, a set of circumstances such as the one in which Ms. Eltime was living is a heart-wrenching one. And for that, anyone would be sympathetic. Until she says, “I don’t know whose responsibility it is.” I don’t know whose responsibility it is, either. What I do know is that it is not the responsibility of the outside world to provide help. It’s nice if we do, but it is not a requirement, especially when people choose to influence their own existences negatively, whether by having too many children when they can’t afford them or by failing to recognize that living in a concrete bunker might not be the best way to protect one’s family, whether an earthquake happens or not.
Ms. Eltime’s reaction helps define what is the crux of my problem with the reaction to this and to other humanitarian crises. I recoil at the notion that I’m SUPPOSED to do something. I would like to help, but only if I feel that my assistance is deserved and justified. If I perceive that I am being told to feel a certain way, and if I can point to a pattern of mistakes made in similar situations, I lose interest.
When I was young, the great humanitarian crisis facing our world – as portrayed by the media, anyway – was the starving masses in Africa. The solution found, of course, was to send bag after bag of food to those people, forgetting the long-understood maxim that giving more food to poor people allows them to create more poor people. (Admittedly, it’s a harsh truth.) At the time, my classmates and I, young and naïve as we were, thought we had come up with a better solution. “They should just go somewhere else,” we said. Our teacher grimaced, saying, “It’s not that simple.”
It still isn’t. And I’m not as naïve as I once was – I don’t think the people of Haiti have the option of moving. But I do think that our assistance should be restricted, like it should be in cases of starvation. It simply does not work to give, unconditionally. What might work is to teach. In the case of famine-stricken segments of Africa, teaching meant making people understand that a population of people needs a certain amount of food, and that the creation of that food has to be self-sustaining for the system to work. In the case of earthquake-stricken Haiti, teaching might mean limited help, but help that is accompanied by criticism of the circumstances that made that help necessary.
In the case of the Haitian earthquake, it’s heartening to see people caring about the fates of their fellow men. What is alarming, I think, is the sometimes illogical frenzy toward casting those affected by the earthquake as helpless, innocent souls who were placed on the island of Hispaniola by an invisible force. In the case of some, this analogy might well be accurate; children cannot very well control their destinies. And as far as sympathy goes, much of it should go to those children.
But children are brought into the world by their parents. Those parents have a responsibility – to themselves and to their kids – to provide. They have a responsibility to look around – before an earthquake happens – and say, “I need to improve this situation, because if a catastrophe were to happen, we’d be in bad shape.”
The people of whom I write are adults. Functional, human adults with functional, human adult brains. It is not too much to ask that they behave as such. That they stand up and say, “Yes, we screwed this up the first time. We are forever indebted to you. Now show us how we can do it right. So that, next time, we won’t need your help.”