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Rebooting Haiti: Eliminating poverty to reduce the impacts of disasters
George Dvorsky   Feb 1, 2010   Sentient Developments  

With the search and rescue efforts officially called off in Haiti, the time has come for reconstruction. But with nearly 200,000 dead and one in nine Haitians currently homeless, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers and lose sight of the primary lesson learned from the catastrophe. That poverty kills. And it kills big time.

Stop for a moment and imagine an earthquake of similar magnitude in San Fransisco. It’s highly unlikely that we’d see a similar death count—not with San Fran’s first-world infrastructure and emergency response network, not to mention the support from surrounding areas.

But we don’t have to imagine these things. Back in 1995 the Great Hanshin Earthquake rocked the Kobe area in Japan killing 6,434 people. This earthquake hit 6.8 on the Richter scale and struck a heavily populated area—very comparable to Haiti. And in 2008 the Sichuan Earthquake killed nearly 68,000 people in China, a country that sits firmly between the third and first worlds.

There’s obviously a direct correlation with the relative affluence of a community and their ability to cope with disaster. There’s no question that the the death toll in Haiti was severely accentuated by the poor state of affairs in that country.

It’s all fine and well that the world’s attention is now focused on Haiti, but the damage has already been done, an outcome caused directly by the earthquake and indirectly by years of global neglect and indifference. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Indeed, this is exactly the kind of unintended violence we impose upon the impoverished peoples of world when they’re largely forgotten.

Moreover, the violence that’s unleashed by poverty is hardly limited to the impacts of natural disasters. As Peter Singer recently noted, “Every year, more people die from poverty related causes than entire population of Haiti.”

It’s clear that poverty has to be eliminated, and Haiti offers a remarkable opportunity to take a de facto post-apocalyptic society and set them on the right track. Success in this matter could provide an unprecedented blue print for similar reconstruction efforts around the world.

Here’s what has to happen in Haiti:

  • All the money that’s pouring in has to be routed to the right areas. While aid agencies are doing an exemplary job dealing with the initial humanitarian crisis, they are far too chaotic, uncoordinated and decentralized to rebuild the country. Rebuilding efforts will have to be conducted by dedicated transnational institutions working in tandem with private industry.
  • Haiti’s infrastructure will have to be rebuilt from scratch. This will include roads, ports, housing, electricity, sanitation and water. The entire Haitian country has to be redesigned for resilience in anticipation of another earthquake.
  • The development of viable economic opportunities is paramount, particularly ones that are sustainable. Agriculture would be a good start; Haiti has some of the sweetest mangos on the planet. Looking further ahead, however, the country’s infrastructure needs to be brought to first world standards if it hopes to compete and do business with the rest of the world.

All this is easier said than done, I know. And quite obviously the reconstruction effort will be more complicated than my four bullet points. But we have to start somewhere and something has to be done.

As Bono of U2 once said, “We’re not looking for charity, we’re looking for justice.”

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


“Haiti’s infrastructure will have to be rebuilt from scratch. ...All this is easier said than done, I know.”

I’m trying to decide what percentage of my paychecks’ taxes should go towards this.

Re-education of the populace must take place before any big-bucks infrastructural dollars are spent, and before any sane group of investors would risk their money trying to operate a business in the country.  The people must cultivate a culture of wanting improvement in their lives to the extent they’re eager to eschew animism, mysticism, and other behaviors (warlord gangs, thugism, lack of a uniform commercial code and the will to enforce it, militant religious fundamentalism, etc.) that foster poverty and death at a cultural systemic level.  This should be the model for development of third-world countries.

To Gary:

How about the 1,700 Christian missionaries leaving the country, to end the indoctrination of mysticism.  Do you know that all the Haitians I have met are devout Christians and 7th Day Adventists to boot.  I wonder where did that come from?

How about the over 15,000 American military personnel in Haiti being replaced by civilian staff.

How about former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was forcibly removed from office by the US, being allowed to return to his country and his party allowed to participate in elections.

“In 1825, the French government sent a team of accountants and actuaries into Haiti in order to place a value on all lands, all physical assets, the 500 000 citizens were who formerly enslaved, animals, and all other commercial properties and services. The sums amounted to 150 million gold francs. Haiti was told to pay this reparation to France in return for national recognition. The Haitian government agreed; payments began immediately. Members of the Cabinet were also valued because they had been enslaved people before independence.
Haiti was forced to pay this sum until 1922 when the last installment was made. During the long 19th century, the payment to France amounted to up to 70 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.  In the years when the coffee crops failed, or the sugar yield was down, the Haitian government borrowed on the French money market at double the going interest rate in order to repay the French government. When the Americans invaded the country in the early 20th century, one of the reasons offered was to assist the French in collecting its reparations.”

“That poverty kills. And it kills big time. ... There’s obviously a direct correlation with the relative affluence of a community and their ability to cope with disaster. There’s no question that the the death toll in Haiti was severely accentuated by the poor state of affairs in that country.”

Should we discuss what was behind the poverty in that country?

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