THE EARTHQUAKE that ravaged Haiti this week is a natural disaster of massive proportion, with an estimated death count rising well into the tens of thousands. But the quake’s devastation is made far worse by man-made conditions in the fragile island nation. Roads, water systems, and electricity were barely functioning before the quake hit. Development agencies find it hard to navigate a complex and sometimes devious government bureaucracy. Poverty, overcrowding, poor health, red tape, slipshod construction - these are not acts of God.
The scale of human devastation is only just becoming clear, as grieving families pick through the rubble in Port-au-Prince. A second wave of misery will come soon: the lingering plight of the injured, the spread of disease from a lack of clean drinking water, and epic homelessness. And that’s not even considering the task of rebuilding.
Relief aid and workers are flowing in. Millions of generous individuals will dig deep - and they should. But there is a difference between emergency aid and development aid. If the United States and other wealthy donor nations did a better job of the second, there might be less need for the first.
Last year Haiti received $287 million in foreign aid from the United States, but that followed years of erratic support. Besides better roads, stronger buildings and irrigation and communication systems, well-run development programs build local expertise and more effective governance. All of these are lacking in Haiti - weaknesses brought into high relief by a disaster.
The quake is particularly heartbreaking because stability and economic growth were just beginning to take root in Haiti. Former President Clinton, a United Nations special envoy to Haiti, hosted a two-day conference there in October with group of American businessmen, trying to drum up investment.
And we have been here before. When Hurricane Jeanne and its after-effects killed over 2,700 people in 2004, agencies from the Red Cross to the United Nations were sounding alarms about deforestation, rapid urbanization, and shoddy construction.
In time, the acute crisis in Haiti will yield again to these more chronic problems. But that is where the hardest work remains to be done.