After the earthquake, how to rebuild Haiti from scratch

After the earthquake, how to rebuild Haiti from scratch

President Obama has declared that the United States will not forsake Haiti in its moment of agony. Honoring this commitment would be a first for Washington.

To prevent a deepening spiral of death, the United States will have to do things differently than in the past. American relief and development institutions do not function properly, and to believe otherwise would be to condemn Haiti’s poor and dying to our own mythology.

In Haiti, we are facing not only a horrific natural disaster but the tectonics of nature, poverty and politics. Even before last week’s earthquake, roughly half of the nation’s 10 million inhabitants lived in destitution, in squalid housing built of adobe or masonry without reinforcements, perched precariously on hillsides. The country is still trying to recover from the hurricanes of 2008 as well as longtime social and political traumas. The government’s inability to cope has been obvious, but those of us who have been around Haiti for many years also know about the lofty international promises that follow each disaster — and how ineffectual the response has been each time. [continued…]

Why Haiti matters

… above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do. For decades, America’s leadership has been founded in part on the fact that we do not use our power to subjugate others, we use it to lift them up — whether it was rebuilding our former adversaries after World War II, dropping food and water to the people of Berlin, or helping the people of Bosnia and Kosovo rebuild their lives and their nations.

At no time is that more true than in moments of great peril and human suffering. It is why we have acted to help people combat the scourge of HIV/AIDS in Africa, or to recover from a catastrophic tsunami in Asia. When we show not just our power, but also our compassion, the world looks to us with a mixture of awe and admiration. That advances our leadership. That shows the character of our country. And it is why every American can look at this relief effort with the pride of knowing that America is acting on behalf of our common humanity. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — When human misery is at its most extreme and acute, is this the time to start singing praise to America?

President Obama is sending the fleet, soldiers, and relief to Haiti because… because that’s what we do: we’re Americans.

Instead, why not because… the Haitians, dirt poor, are nevertheless just like us (even though they’re not Americans)?

Is it possible to offer help without turning the occasion into a demonstration of national sainthood?

Of course there is nothing uniquely American about seeing crude nationalistic PR opportunities riding on tragedy.

Israelis, acutely conscious of the extent to which their national reputation has been shredded in recent years, clearly see in Haiti a stage for demonstrating the depth of compassion that exists in the Jewish state.

If the devastation wrought on southern Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza a year ago and the ongoing merciless siege of Gaza all serve to reinforce an image of Zionist brutality, then sending teams of doctors to Haiti might go some way to counter that impression.

That at least seems to be the thinking behind Haaretz‘s headline story today, “Life amid death: Baby born in Israeli field hospital in Haiti” – a gripping narrative from the intrepid Natasha Mozgovaya.

She starts:

Amid the tragedy and devastation encompassing the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince since Tuesday’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake, a happy event took place Sunday inside the field hospital erected by the Israeli relief delegation in the city. Doctor Shir, who works at Hadassah, delivered the first healthy baby in the Israeli hospital.

The mother told Dr. Shir that she would name her son Israel. “Amid all the death around us,” the doctor said, “it is very symbolic.” He added that childbirth in Haiti doesn’t usually take place in a hospital in the impoverished country, and that this particular woman received the best care from the best doctors.

Oh my! Israeli doctors in an Israeli hospital delivering a baby called Israel! And who would have thought little Israel could do so much good so far away?

Here’s one Haitian who was dumb-founded:

One of the Israeli search and rescue teams on Saturday freed 69-year-old France Gilles from the rubble.

“We told him we were from Israel and he asked if we were mocking him,” one rescuer said.

As for the non-Israeli relief efforts, well, when non-Israelis try and rescue someone the victim doesn’t survive:

Elsewhere, a British team was able to make contact with a woman trapped beneath the debris but was unable to reach her. Before they could dig their way through, a Haitian bulldozer destroyed the remains of the building and the woman was recovered, dead.

Poor woman, that the Israelis couldn’t get there first. When they do, they heroically save lives:

At another site Israelis spoke with a trapped man, seemingly the only survivor after a building collapsed. Following several hours of excavation, rescuers had succeeded in injecting him with fluids, one worker said, and that the team hoped to extricate him within a few more hours.

“We’ve had to drill through a concrete girder, as he is trapped between pipes and planking,” said Liron Shapira, deputy commander of the Israeli delegation. “We have already removed most of the piping and have managed to attach intravenous drips to his torso. As far as we are concerned, as soon as the drips are attached we can proceed smoothly. Now we need to remove the debris from around his legs. Then we should be able to pull him free.”

And might there be a religious dimension in the league table of compassion?

Distress has clearly not bred solidarity and shouts and elbows fly as the needy jostle for food. Three young women from Wisconsin – Susan, Becky and Jamie, volunteers at a Catholic orphanage – are trying to board their flight. “Don’t tell her anything,” one of the girls warns her friend, pointing at me. “She’ll use it to take our place on the flight.” Only after I explain that I have no intention of stealing their seats do they calm down. “We were originally supposed to leave today but because there are no phones or communications we didn’t know if there was a flight, so we came anyway.”

OK, cynicism aside, Israel’s 220-strong relief team is impressive coming from a country of just 7.5 million. Mind you, Iceland, a country that’s bankrupt and has a population of just 320,000 has managed to send a 37-strong search and rescue team. Good on those plucky Icelanders!

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