The blogosphere has begun to reflect on the tragic events in Haiti over the past week. Devistation was widespread. The National Palace (pictured here) and most other structures in the capial Port-au-Prince suffered severe damage, and an estimated 140,000 people perished. The scope of devastation was illustrated most dramatically by the before-and-after satellite photos published by Google. Countless calls for giving have been made (If you would like to donate, you may do so through a number of organizations, including Medecins Sans Frontieres, UNICEF, the Red Cross, and Haiti Partners). A number of controversies have also emerged. Pat Robinson made statements implying the people of Haiti deserved it because they “made a pact with Satan.” Rush Limbaugh attempted to politicize the crisis by implying that President Barack Obama’s response was motivated by racism—a point picked up on by Fox commentator Glenn Beck and criticized by MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann.
Setting aside petty domestic political squabbles, though, it seems clear that the tragic events in Haiti this week were long in the making. Blogging at Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf notes that
It was the crushing poverty in the hemisphere’s poorest nation that resulted in Port-au-Prince being a city of ramshackle homes of unreinforced concrete or worse, shanties assembled of odd-shaped bits of rusty, corrugated metal, scrap wood, cardboard and old packing crates. It was decades of neglect that made rebar an unaffordable luxury for virtually all on the island or that left communications, power and water systems so underdeveloped that even prior to the earthquake they were operating at what even other poor nations would consider crisis levels.
The tragedy in Haiti, in other words, was triggered by the earthquake. But its underlying causes rested elsewhere—with the rampant poverty that plagued the country since it achieved independence from France in 1804. (As Chris Blattman notes, it took Haiti almost 150 years to repay the French for reparations demanded as a cost of independence. Payments on this debt amounted to 80 percent of its national budget). This conclusion raises a couple of critical questions:
First, could this tragedy have been prevented? If Port-au-Prince had been properly prepared, if the homes and buildings of the city had been properly constructed, would the death toll had been as staggeringly high? Even before the quake, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with more than 80 percent of the population subsisting on less than $2 per day. Despite the widespread poverty in Haiti, the government owed more than $1.3 billion to international creditors, paying approximately $1 million per week in debt servicing.
Second, if Haiti had enjoyed a stronger democratic tradition free of foreign intervention, would the impact of the quake been reduced? Amartya Sen’s work on famine suggests that democratic states may suffer from malnutrition but they generally avoid famines. According to Sen, this is because in a democracy, the political elite must be responsive to the people, and the people will not stand by and allow famines to occur. Haiti has a long history of oppressive dictators and foreign political intervention. Would a democratic political tradition in Haiti forced the government to take steps to prepare for such a crisis?
In raising these points, I am not suggesting that the earthquake could have been prevented. Rather, I’m suggesting that poor, undemocratic countries are likely to suffer disproportionately from crisis events. Moving forward, this means that addressing crises like the earthquake in Haiti (or flooding, famine, or drought elsewhere) may best be addressed through debt forgiveness and economic and political development before the crisis occurs. Think of it as Sen’s entitlement theory of famine writ large.