Haiti: Give Aid or Deal With the Roots of the Problem?
Rick Steves: On the question few people are asking about Haiti after the earthquake
02.08.10 | 3:57 PM ET
On Conan O’Brien’s final “Tonight Show” last week, he said, “Don’t be cynical. Cynicism is my least favorite trait.” I don’t want to be cynical. It’s not constructive. But on that spectrum between frustrated and cynical, I’m not in a very good place right now.
Just hours before that show, the four big networks joined together to broadcast a telethon to raise emergency aid for Haiti. America cares. We’re coming to the rescue. When people are in need, it brings out the best in the American people—regardless of our politics, we are united in support. Locally, my church is collecting “health kits for Haiti.” There’s a button on its website to help raise money. I’m inspired by the outpouring of goodwill. It’s good and necessary and motivated by love.
But at the same time, I’m troubled that no one seems to be asking why Haiti is so wretchedly poor to begin with—so poor that even their presidential palace can be toppled by an earthquake. As soon as the passion of this moment fades, the U.S. government will continue contributing to repressive trade policies that keep places like Haiti impoverished. Am I the only one disillusioned, concerned that almost nobody—especially those in our media or government—is talking about this?
Charity is good. It helps people. It feels good. It’s easy to do, and easy to understand. But addressing the roots of structural poverty is the real challenge. A Toys for Tots-type organization collecting toys (“new and in their original packaging please”) brings cheer to poor kids who might not otherwise have a happy Christmas. And while caring people head to the mall with a longer shopping list, our society scuttles an opportunity to help those same families not to be impoverished by health care expenses. Again: simple charity ... structural poverty.
During tough economic times or when dealing with the human suffering caused by natural disasters at home or abroad, each of us is confronted with a personal choice. You can: ignore; respond; or ask why, learn, and act to address the root of problem. Most good people take door #2. It’s human nature.
Nobody wants to open door #3. But we must. For example, seismic safety is a luxury only the privileged can afford. While the numbers aren’t in yet on Haiti’s quake, in 2001 a similar quake hit El Salvador and left nearly a quarter of the country’s population (1.5 million people) homeless. (2001 was a momentous year for the U.S., but imagine a quarter of your country homeless.) An earthquake of the same magnitude hit my hometown that same year, and no one died. I was at work in our new-at-the-time building and remember riding it out as though I were on a hobby horse (suddenly thankful for the code requirements that made me spend extra for construction that could withstand such a quake). The best those living in a Haitian shantytown can afford for earthquake protection is to live in what’s called “miniskirt housing”—cinderblocks for the lower half of the wall, and light corrugated tin for the upper walls and roof. When a miniskirt house tumbles down, at least it won’t kill you.
We can blame Haiti’s squalor on voodoo, on its heritage of slavery, on corruption, on the fact that its main export is topsoil (in a treeless land, each rainstorm flushes precious soil into the sea), or on many other factors. But we must also look at American and European trade policies that help keep nations like Haiti underdeveloped—tariffs that help keep them “banana republics.”
A banana republic is a poor land whose economy is dominated by the export of its leading natural resource. It’s subjugated by First World trade policies that allow it to export raw materials but not finished products. Higher tariffs for processed goods make it nearly impossible to export anything but cheap raw materials to the already-developed world competitively. Put simply, Haiti can export raw sugar but not candy. Ghana can export cocoa but not chocolate bars. Honduras can export peanuts but not peanut butter. Compounding that are subsidies for American agricultural products. Haiti would love to compete fairly for the American market with its sugar, rice and textiles, but tariffs and subsidies created by our government (to protect you and me) make it impossible. In Haiti, you’ll see fields that once grew rice now left unplanted. And across the street, a shack sells rice grown in the U.S.
That is an example of structural poverty put upon countless millions of people, in part by the trade policies of the wealthy world. Sure, it may be good business for us in the short term. But having squalor south of our border may not be in even the greediest American’s self-interest in the long term.
The most widely used term for poor countries these days is “the Developing World.” But I find that label ironic, since so many First World economic policies systematically and actively keep places like Haiti underdeveloped. (The chapter on El Salvador in my “Travel as a Political Act” book explains this more thoroughly.)
OK, I guess I am cynical. (I think that feeling is stoked by the growing power of corporations to shape policies that impact real people—like the Haitians our hearts will go out to for the next week or so. Even before everyone was dug out of the rubble that was once Port-au-Prince, the U.S. Supreme Court gave American corporations the constitutional right to be protected as individuals. That means they have the right to buy our government in the name of “free speech.” I fear our “democracy” is fast becoming one with a government still “by, for, and of the people”—but via the corporations we own. And, as that happens, why would our government ever reconsider these trade policies?)
Give aid or deal with the roots of the problem? That’s the question. Mother Teresa inspired us to feed the poor. Like everyone else, I loved her. El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero asked what were the roots of his nation’s poverty. He was shot. Today, my pastor worked a slide show on Haiti into his sermon: a series of horrific scenes of squalor. The last frame read: “Haiti before the earthquake.”
On my last trip south of our border, I heard a local troubadour sing: “It’s not easy to see God in the orphan child who cleans the windshields at a traffic light ... but we must.”
So what do we do? I’m not sure. We can ask ourselves how costly it would be for the U.S. to allow free trade so poor countries can compete with us. We can learn more about these issues. And we can support Bread for the World—see www.bread.org—which lobbies courageously, effectively and against great odds for friendlier trade policies for people like the Haitians.