Even before Tuesday’s earthquake Haiti had experienced 200 years of some of the worst luck that can befall a nation. Once France’s richest colony, it was a slave economy built on sugar, coffee, and the misery of African slaves, who finally revolted, saw off an invasion of 30,000 of Napoleon’s troops, and declared independence in 1804. France conceded defeat, but only at the price of 150 million francs in gold in “reparations” for its lost property, a sum it took the Haitians until 1947 to pay off, sometimes at a cost of 80% of the country’s annual budget. It has suffered 18 years of occupation by the U.S. Marines, AIDS, the brutal Duvalier regime, rampant deforestation, years of political turbulence and violence, U.S. economic sanctions that all but destroyed its small industrial base, and Ethiopian levels of poverty, disease and hunger.
Even amidst all of these tribulations, Haiti and its people retained the capacity to inspire and delight with their music, art, and their sense of humor and fun and joy.
And now this. Estimates of the death toll have already surpassed 100,000, but with tens of thousands of people still missing, it is sure to rise further, potentially rivaling the December 2004 tsunami, which claimed over 200,000 lives. But that was spread out over a dozen countries with an aggregate population of over 1.5 billion, while Haiti has only 9 million people.
I visited Haiti in early April of last year and it was a hopeful time. The security situation had improved and some semblance of political stability had returned. Under generous market access preferences granted Haiti by the U.S. government garment exports were booming and investors – especially from East Asia – were clamoring for land to build new garment factories. The major donor countries held a conference later that month, hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington with strong backing from former President Bill Clinton and his foundation, from which emerged a unified and substantial commitment to assist Haiti in ways that seemed to make sense.
All that is gone now, and efforts over the next months and probably years will be focused on trying to restore Haiti to what it was at the beginning of this week, never mind transforming it into something better. So far I have heard from some people I know, who mercifully are safe, but there remain others, some of them good friends, of whom I have no news.
Many of us are tempted to get on a plane, get down there, and pitch in, but the truth is we’d only get in the way of the professionals who know what they are doing. The Red Cross tell us that they are not accepting volunteers to go to Haiti, and unless you have specialist medical or technical skills all you can do is give money. Please do. My two preferences are Mercy Corps and the Red Cross. In the U.S., you can make an instant $10 donation to the Red Cross Haiti effort by texting “Haiti” to 90999, or you can give more by clicking here. Or give to another charity or relief organization of your choosing.