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Development and Disaster

January 14, 2010

The United Nations Office of the High Representative for Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States has designated a list of the 49 Least Developed Countries in the world.  Only one of these countries is not in Africa or Asia, guess which one.  I’ll give you a clue.  It was just devastated by a massive earthquake and death toll estimates in the media have reached to hundreds of thousands (though I hope this number is just a product of sensational journalism).  Yes, Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the world was just hit with a huge natural disaster.  In a matter of minutes the scant amount of infrastructure and stability Haiti had built since 2006 was seriously compromised.

This is a time for the first responders in the development field to jump into action.  Those who have prepared themselves for humanitarian relief and rescue missions are already on their way.  Obama’s call to action was swift as he placed Dr. Rajiv Shah of the U.S. Agency for International Development to be the government’s disaster coordinator and mobilized the capable government agencies to begin rescue efforts.  Millions of dollars are being allocated from disaster funds and donations are pouring in within hours (I sent a quick $10 to the Red Cross by texting “Haiti” to “90999”, you can too).  Pictures are flooding the internet and videos of the earthquake and its aftermath can be found on Youtube.  Heart-wrenching stories and first hand narratives accompany many of the visual media and no doubt have an effect on the hearts and minds of the rest of the world.  How could they not if you have any amount of compassion for fellow people?

This is a natural response, and it is the morally correct response.  It is in these times of crisis, such as the September 11th attacks in the United States, which people come together, forgetting preconceived notions, and work towards a common goal that is understood by the majority of people to be good.  The almost universal ability to understand when other people have been unduly harmed and the desire to help is one of the few instances when people allow themselves to perceive the humanity of one another and be moved by it. 

But now I must let the other shoe drop.  There is also a problem with our emotional response.  This is why organizations that fight poverty or promote human rights, and that I have donated to in the past, send me solicitations with pictures of children crying and forlorn looking families.  We are driven by our emotions.  It is a good thing that there is an enormous international effort to get food, medicine and other supplies to Haiti as you read this.  It is not good that as soon as the cameras are gone so will be the drive to help Haitians.  The news cycle will move on and so will we.

What Haiti needed in the past in order to be ready for this natural disaster is just what they will need in the future to overcome the next:  development.  They need a stable government with social services, investment and foreign aid to begin economic growth, infrastructure and safe housing.  They need to rule of law and correct zoning to ensure safety in natural disasters.  They need to have inspectors to for enforcement.  They need to have people who can afford to build houses correctly.  This means there will be a need for good jobs to afford the construction.  This is predicated on Haiti attracting business and having a sound development plan with sound fiscal policies.  This goes back to having a stable representative government.  This is all just to say that humanitarian efforts are important but the ensuing development work is the truly daunting task, especially as media coverage and funds dry up.  In order for Haiti and other LDCs to attain the physical and financial ability to survive and recover from such natural disasters it will take a concerted effort over the course of many years. 

Developed countries such as the United States are better prepared for this kind of disaster.  If the earthquake happened on our soil the infrastructure and buildings would have faired better, less people would have died, relief efforts would have been easier and post-disaster development would happen quicker.  New Orleans after Katrina is such an example.  I am fully aware that their have been many failures and glaring problems with the Katrina humanitarian response and ensuing reconstruction efforts.  Still, with a little research, it is also evident that there is a lot of money and effort from Americans assisting in the rebuilding of New Orleans.  If you doubt the relative rosy hue I am putting on post-Katrina New Orleans, compare figures, such as these industrious professors and students have created, with similar indicators of Haiti’s Port-au-Prince in two years.  Actually this might make a good thesis for someone. 

This disaster should serve as a cautionary tale for a future promising of environmental changes and challenges.  Unless the developed world is satisfied successively putting out fires literally and figuratively, we should take a more committed approach to helping developing countries towards their future success.  This could begin by addressing their needs in climate talks and the Doha round of WTO negotiations.  If we allow countries to stagnate in underdevelopment we can expect to be in this position repeatedly.

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