Haiti is dangerously close to new disasters

By Anne Applebaum
Monday, January 18, 2010

For the past several days, I have found myself unable to look at the photographs from Haiti. I have also found that when I start an article datelined Port-au-Prince, I have to force myself to read to the end. I have donated money to Doctors Without Borders, on the grounds that its medical staff has been in Haiti a long time and will be able to use the cash quickly. I have no illusions, however, about my tiny donation or about those doctors' ability to help. I have no illusions about anyone's ability to help, for this is not just a natural disaster: It is a man-made disaster first and foremost, and so it will remain.

Though the earthquake itself was powerful, its impact was multiplied many, many times by the weakness of civil society and the absence of the rule of law in Haiti. As Roger Noriega has written, "you can literally see the dysfunction from space." Satellite photos of Hispaniola, the island split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, show green forests on the Dominican side and bare, deforested hills on the Haitian side. Mudslides and collapsing houses were routine in Haiti even before this disaster. Laws designed to prevent erosion, and building codes designed to prevent criminally shoddy construction, were ignored. The rickety slums of Port-au-Prince were constructed in ravines and on steep, unstable hills. When they collapsed, they collapsed completely.

So incredibly weak were Haiti's public institutions that nothing is left of them either. Parliament, churches, hospitals and government offices no longer exist. Haiti's archbishop is dead. The head of the U.N. mission is dead. There is a real possibility that violent gangs will emerge to take the place of leadership, to control food supplies, to loot what remains to be looted. There is a real possibility, in the coming days, of epidemics, mass starvation and civil war.

I don't remember feeling this utter hopelessness about previous natural disasters. After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 there were equally horrific scenes and stories: Whole villages swept away, people drowned in their homes, American families wading through water clutching their possessions on their heads. But after the initial chaos in both places, it was possible to coordinate basic assistance. In fact, the victims of Katrina were moved quickly out of New Orleans. Remember the buses to Texas, the Americans who offered their spare rooms to homeless families, the churches and schools that "adopted" refugees from the Gulf Coast? Although I would never claim that the result is satisfactory -- neither the city nor the adjacent coastline will ever be rebuilt as it was, and hundreds of thousands of people will never truly recover -- at least there were no epidemics, no mass starvation, no civil war.

The same is true in Indonesia. It is even possible to read assessments of the worst-hit places, such as the region of Aceh -- from the World Bank, for example -- that describe life there as better than ever. I am certain that many disagree. There are, however, no scenes in Aceh of what everyone always calls "biblical" tragedy. Indonesia is not a society of utopian perfection, and neither is the United States. But both have enough social cohesion to support indigenous charities; both have enough educated people to plan reconstruction; both are capable of absorbing lessons learned, of rebuilding villages and cities with an eye toward future floods, of helping their own refugees resettle.

Haiti does not have these kinds of internal resources, which means that the reconstruction expertise will have to come from outside. Most of it will come from the United States. Yet for the obvious historical reasons, this outside expertise will be unacceptable to many Haitians, who will see it as a colonial imposition, unwarranted interference in local affairs and cultural imperialism. Armed Marines may wind up in firefights with those violent gangs. Local elites -- those who remain -- may plot to swindle the aid missions out of their food and money.

I hope I am wrong. I am sure there are optimists out there, people who think this is Haiti's chance to reconstruct itself, literally and figuratively, to rebuild government institutions, to attract donors and investment. Bill Clinton is such an optimist, and I am very, very glad that he and his wife spent their honeymoon in Haiti: How fortunate, at this moment, that the country has such powerful friends. Yet I also know that a successful recovery and reconstruction will require not just friends, not just money and not just optimism, but also a profound cultural and political shift, the kind of change that normally takes decades. And Haiti does not have decades, it has days -- maybe hours -- before fresh disasters strike.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company