It might be easy to forget that just over a week ago, Haiti experienced its largest earthquake in 200 years, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of injuries and infections, and unthinkable devastation in the capital of Port-au-Prince. The media has already begun to turn its focus to other issues, but we must not forget about Haiti so soon—not again.
For too long, Haitians have been neglected by their northern neighbors and forgotten by the constituencies on whose behalf wealthier governments claim to act. After being established by former slaves and revolting against its French master in 1804, Haiti was not welcomed into the international community of independent nations. The United States, viewing a nation of former slaves as a threat to slavery in the Western hemisphere, refused to grant diplomatic recognition to Haiti until 1862. The French demanded that Haiti pay an unreasonable price for the new nation to receive diplomatic recognition—150 million gold francs to French citizens who lost property and assets during the Haitian Revolution. Needless to say, repaying a debt representing five times Haiti’s export revenue for 1825 drained the government’s coffers, crippling the capacity of the Haitian state to support its large peasant population. Since then, Haiti’s history has been marked by the exploitative economic presence of wealthy northern countries, foreign intervention in internal politics, the establishment of the modern Haitian army by the United States, and Cold War support for brutal dictators whose legacies are still felt.
Before the earthquake, Haiti was the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Over the past two weeks, it is now clear Haiti has lost almost everything, from its already fragile infrastructure to its lifeline of international aid. While no accurate death toll figure exists yet, The Haitian government has said that 150,000 have died in the capital of Port-au-Prince alone. The capital lies in ruins, and the surviving population hangs by a thread in tent towns now housing millions of homeless Haitians.
As students, we read about this tragedy with an intellectual curiosity and a shared belief that these events are tragic and something must be done. Unfortunately, we stop there. We find ourselves following the tragedy in the news, speaking about it with our friends, agreeing something must be done, and then going about our daily business. After all, we haven’t figured out our classes yet, and that’s important, right?
We simply cannot allow our devotion to this cause slip away as it turns from a current event to a past tragedy. The truth remains that people are dying in Haiti, and that these deaths are avoidable. In a state so fragile, lives can be saved for the amount of a book. Our actions now can, and must, account for past transgressions. We have a responsibility to all Haitians to provide them with the tools to rebuild, the tools we have denied them for two hundred years.
If we act now, donations can save lives. Miraculous stories of rescue missions abound, operating rooms have been established, and urgent medical care is being delivered—but the resources are still outstripped by the need for them. As the rescue missions subside, the long-term task of rebuilding the infrastructure and public institutions in Haiti—a task that has often gone without proper international support for 200 years—will continue. As the international spotlight fades from Haiti, this task will become even more difficult.
We must support efforts to rebuild Haiti in the long term—both as donators and as political agents making claims on our government. This requires that public institutions have adequate resources, tertiary education institutions give Haitians preference in admissions, and that jobs for Haitians are created with the recent influx of aid. One organization that is working with the public sector and will continue to work in Haiti after all of the cameras and news media leave is Partners In Health, an NGO that has been operating in Haiti for 25 years delivering free medical care to the rural poor. Before the earthquake struck on Jan. 12, PIH had more than 100 doctors, 600 nurses, and 4,000 employees on the ground in Haiti working from 12 existing PIH medical facilities. It has since established field hospitals in Port-au-Prince, and supported 20 operating rooms in the country. It is organizations like Partners In Health that are clearly in Haiti for the long haul and should be supported in the coming weeks, months, and years with charitable donations.
But as the media withdraws from Haiti, the number of charitable donations will likely decrease. If Haiti is to have enough resources for rebuilding more, wealthy governments will have to make sustained commitments. What is needed is a Marshall Plan for Haiti that tackles problems comprehensively and allows the rebuilding of both physical and public institutions. As citizens, we must not forget that our government’s budget ought to reflect our priorities, and the outpouring of donation and support for Haiti should be seen as a reflection of Americans’ political willingness to support reconstruction. As political agents, we must ensure that our government is held accountable, and that for once Haiti be supported by the international community in an enduring way.
Krishna Prabhu ’11 and Michael Henderson ’11 are members of Harvard College Global Health & AIDS Coalition and the Harvard College Global Health Review.