A Picture of Haiti You May Not Have Seen

I forward this report from Antoine Jaulmes, a French auto engineer and a colleague of mine in Initiatives of Change (IofC), a non-governmental organization working for peace, reconciliation and human security worldwide.


Rebuilding Haiti Will Not Be Enough

The 12 January earthquake in Haiti was devastating. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people were killed. International aid was mobilized quickly, though there was much criticism that the aid sent was slow to reach those most in need; the deployment of aid was slowed by the destruction of the country’s infrastructure—already inadequate because of Haiti’s acute poverty.

Why was it that the daily reality of Haiti did not cause the same kind of emotional response as the catastrophe which hit the island? Life expectancy in Haiti is only 53 years (against about 75 years in developed countries). The death rate of children under five is 12.3 per cent (against 0.5 per cent in developed countries), meaning that over 40,000 very young children die every year in Haiti. Losing your child before its fifth birthday is a rare tragedy for the developed world but a cruel reality in Haiti – the odds are one in seven. Ninety-five per cent of these tragedies could be avoided if poverty receded.

The poverty scandal is there all the time for us to see. The arrival of the luxury cruise liner Independence of the Seas on the devastated northern shores of Haiti three days after the earthquake only shines an extra spotlight on the question. Indeed the idyllic beach of Labadee welcomes a continuous flow of well-fed North American tourists, looking for rest and amusement, close to the epicentre of the quake, at the very heart of this land tormented by hunger, violence and death. This beach, like a few others, is a no-go zone for locals, who are kept at bay by barbed wire and heavily armed guards.

However the 4,000 tourists of the Independence of the Seas, soon followed by the 3,000 of the Navigator of the Seas, also represents an opportunity. Their presence, maintained despite the catastrophe, may be shocking but is also a chance for the island: they bring extra income and delivery of food aid. The organisers, Royal Caribbean, will also contribute to aid funds, to the satisfaction of the UN representatives in Haiti, as one of their directors reported to the English newspaper The Guardian.

Enjoying these idyllic locations while the country is devastated by the earthquake has, however, tested the conscience of the tourists, says the Swiss daily 20 minutes: some have not disembarked in Haiti, aware of the thousands of victims strewn throughout the streets, and of survivors lacking water and food. Others have had no qualms. After all, these were holidays paid for by hard work which had to be enjoyed.

Is not the main merit of the Royal Caribbean ships to underline the scandal of extreme poverty? Worldwide, 25,000 children aged between 0 and 5 die daily of causes which could easily be prevented. Malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia are the main child-killers, in a context of insufficient or non-existent infrastructure and medical services. That number represents one Haiti earthquake every two or three days. The main ally of these killers is extreme poverty, a curse and a servitude plaguing Haiti and 20 per cent of humankind.

What the Royal Caribbean ships, and indirectly the 12 January earthquake, do demonstrate is that urgent change is needed. The imbalance in the distribution of wealth and the injustice has reached such heights that global stability is permanently threatened by conflict and migration. Rebuilding Haiti is a noble and imperative task, around which the main economic powers will, no doubt, unite. But rebuilding Haiti is not enough. What is needed this century is to end extreme poverty, to break the chains of economic servitude, just as the chains of slavery were broken two centuries ago.

Just like global warming, the issue of poverty is one of vital significance for the future of humankind—and no doubt faces the same deep difficulties to overcome national or vested interests. A large moral movement, an international mobilisation of public opinion and a good experience of dialogue and negotiation are needed to carry out the needed changes. Initiatives of Change seeks to contribute to these through its international meetings in Caux, Switzerland.

Let us hope that the international solidarity at work to help Haiti becomes the bedrock of an awakening conscience about poverty which will give the needed momentum to the fight this evil. Haiti’s sufferings would then not have been in vain.