Learning Haiti.

As promised, I’ve been catching up on the history I’ve ignored about Haiti all these years. It’s a crash course in misery — or, in the words of an article that the Sunday Times ran last May: “If you ever hear of Haiti, it is usually because of something frightening.”

Two centuries ago, the political economist Robert Malthus postulated that a society in which the population grew too fast could reach a point where people simply could not be fed, leading to a total collapse. Over the past five years, Haiti has not only met but exceeded the conditions for a Malthusian catastrophe…. The country is poised on the brink of what could be a humanitarian crisis of terrifying proportions.

This was written, I will remind you, eight months ago. How does one add “earthquake” to “terrifying proportions” on the human misery scale? I cannot begin to fathom what manner of crisis is unfolding as I type.

And furthermore: Why? What is it about Haiti’s history that has created a country in which, to quote the title of the Times piece, “the children eat mud”?

Well, it turns out that it’s fairly simple, really. It begins in 1697 with literal slavery, which eventually became debt slavery, and that’s pretty much the beginning, middle, and end of the story.

When the French claimed the area that is today Haiti, they brought with them an unprecedented number of slaves, whom they treated so badly that their life expectancy was all of 21. (Today, Haitians have a life expectancy of about 60, as compared to more than 78 for Americans, or more than 80 for Israelis). In the late 18th century, the slaves revolted, touching off a 12 year war, at the end of which France demanded reparations.

Haiti was forced to pay France for its freedom [Boing Boing summarizes]. When they couldn’t afford the ransom, France (and other countries, including the United States) helpfully offered high-interest loans. By 1900, 80% of Haiti’s annual budget went to paying off its “reparation” debt. They didn’t make the last payment until 1947. Just 10 years later, dictator François Duvalier took over the country and promptly bankrupted it, taking out more high-interest loans to pay for his corrupt lifestyle. The Duvalier family, with the blind-eye financial assistance of Western countries, killed 10s of thousands of Haitians, until the Haitian people overthrew them in 1986. Today, Haiti is still paying off the debt of an oppressive dictator no one would help them get rid of for 30 years.

I highly recommend reading the Times piece in its entirety — the details are just stupefying: 80% of Haitians live on less than $3.25 a day. Haiti is 98% deforested. 10% of Haiti’s children have been sent by their hungry families to live in the cities as servants, where they are met with rampant abuse. In some parts of the country, 50% of all women and girls have been raped.

Add to all of that what I heard on the BBC Newshour this morning: One million Haitians are dependent on international aid agencies for their food (that’s more than a tenth of the population) — and, in fact, more than half of the population actually lives on less than one dollar a day.

Of course, that was all before the earthquake.

So, what can one do? Sitting at my desk, a roof over my head, my children safe, my stomach full — what can I do?

Well, donate money, of course, but you knew that. The Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Doctors Without Borders, and the White House’s information page are all good places to start; as you’ve likely heard, you can give $10 to the Red Cross just by texting “HAITI” to 90999. Of course and always: Beware scams. What you may not know is that it is almost always best to give money rather than supplies — indeed, making in-kind contributions that are not properly coordinated can actually hinder aid efforts. Here’s a good article explaining why: Haiti: Help with Money, Not Stuff

But what if you’re broke? There are still important ways to help:

  1. About that debt – after the initial post about that Times article, Boing Boing updated with information about efforts to get Haiti’s debt forgiven: “The U.S. Congress is currently considering a bill called The Jubilee Act for Responsible Lending and Expanded Debt Cancellation. Part of what this bill would do is help countries like Haiti get their debt canceled, without making that cancellation conditional on things like closing down free schools or raising the cost of fresh water. Maybe a good time to contact your representatives about about this bi-partisan measure“. You can find your Senators by going to www.senate.gov, and your Representative by going to www.house.gov. I’ll provide a sample letter/phone script at the end of this post.
  2. Donate blood to the Red Cross.
  3. If you have a useful skill — social worker, midwife (or doctor/nurse, obvs), IT professional, French-English translator — you might be able volunteer your skills through the Red Cross, or even in your local Haitian community (it took me about two seconds on Google to find a Haitian community organization in Chicago). I guarantee you that a) Haitian ex-pats are hurting and in need of help right now, and b) they will soon be joined by family members with even greater need. You can also simply volunteer at your local Red Cross chapter — they are likely swamped right now, and helping them in America allows them to get more help down to Haiti. Here’s one person’s experience with wanting to help out post-Katrina and discovering that the most useful help was on a phone bank.
  4. Hold a garage sale, bake sale, party, raffle, some little fundraising thing, and dedicate the funds to whichever charity you like best.
  5. Make a choice. I say this with great care, because everyone has to judge their own needs. But sometimes we can look at what we do on a regular basis and say: That’s it – I won’t get coffee on the go for a month. That’s X dollars I can send to Mercy Corps. Or: Yes, I really want to go to that movie, but I’ll skip it, and text the Red Cross with my $10.
  6. Finally, don’t forget: THEY WILL NEED HELP FOR A VERY LONG TIME TO COME. If you can’t donate now, or have no extra time now, your situation may be different in two months, or six months, or a year, and you can commit yourself to helping then. Haiti, and the ex-pat Haitian community, will still need it.



I am a resident of [your town and state] and in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, I’m writing/calling to encourage Senator/Representative XYZ to act quickly with the rest of Congress to pass the Jubilee Act for Debt Cancellation. Whatever other help we eventually give to the Haitians, they will need to be debt-free if they are ever to truly recover. Thank you.

UPDATE: I meant to point people to Nefarious Newt’s comment on my last post, Ignorance. He makes a very good point about the importance of seeing beyond this disaster to the larger human picture.

UPDATE II: Rabbi Brant Rosen linked today to an interesting list of things that the US should do in its efforts to aid Haiti, a list that raises a series of points that I hadn’t even considered: Ten Things the US Can and Should Do for Haiti.

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  1. Just imagine if Katrina had killed 1.5 million Americans. That is where you start with this awful tragedy. For all intents and purposes the government of Haiti no longer exists. Sure we see a few government officials on TV but they have nothing to work with. Nothing. Infrastructure was precarious at best and the country’s most populous city and the seat of government has been wiped out. It’s gone.

    Haiti is now an American protectorate. I have confidence the president understands that if we do not go in and aggressively begin to rebuild, the people of Haiti will make every attempt to float to our shores. What alternative do they have?

  2. Michael Unger

     /  January 15, 2010

    A fairly reasonable and concise op-ed piece about why Haiti has resisted progress for so long, even in the face of more international aid than any other country in the hemisphere. This country needs more than money to turn around, as it is obvious that money and good intentions have failed miserably to bring civilization to this poor country:


  3. Lise

     /  January 15, 2010

    Good work Emily. Thanks. I posted it to FB, so you may get more traffic from there. I’m not sure how useful a midwife would be (because I’ve thought about it), but they really need trauma specialists, orthopedic surgeons, nurses in neurology and ortho, nurse-anesthetists, etc, people who know how to treat people who’ve sustained crushing injuries and head trauma.

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