Haiti and the Underbelly of Poverty

Disasters of all types expose the weak underbelly of poverty. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados and political turmoil make the poor vulnerable and create challenges for humanitarian responses. The earthquake in Haiti is a classic example. As nations respond to this crippling blow of Mother Nature in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, responders struggle with a nation with little or no social or economic infrastructure. It is a reality that existed before the earthquake or before the four hurricanes of 2008 or before the political turmoil of the past decade. Haiti is poor, it has always been poor and we have always known it is poor. Nations have allowed the political unrest of the past half century to hinder or prevent them from assisting with economic and political development. Sentimental reflection from politicians across the globe on the greatness of the Haitian people is no substitute for tangible and real action.

This catastrophe has catapulted Haiti and its collapsed infrastructure into the headlines and should catapult it into our conscience. To be sure, we will and we must respond with humanitarian aid that seeks to address the immediate crisis of health and safety. The world is sending a record number of materials, supplies, medical teams and relief that will seek to stanch this critical wound. However, as we move forward over time, we must also seek to address the infrastructure of Haiti’s political and economic world. Governments, humanitarian organizations and people of faith have known of Haiti’s vulnerability and shoveled aid into this broken country hoping to save a life here or there. Partners in Health, World Vision, the United Nations all have strong presence in this country and have delivered critical AID. However, despite these heroic efforts, these same organizations are now suffering under the weight of a broken infrastructure and system that, if working properly, could have mitigated the depth and scope of the earthquake’s impact.
In countries like Haiti, it is not if a crisis will happen it is when. Today, I write this blog from Kenya a nation on the edge and precipice of political turmoil and perhaps collapse. This year 750,000 young people will graduate from secondary school and only 250,000 of them will find jobs. Only 10% of the remaining 500,000 have the necessary skills for employment. Inside the Kibera Housing Slum and other slums in and around Nairobi, there is anxiety and tension as the youth population continues to grow and the economy continues to shrink. The political structures are locked in the tribal conflicts that defined this nation long before the ravages of colonialism. Nobody likes to call it tribal, because the crisis is certainly more than tribal; it is about jobs, weakened infrastructure and the West’s failure to understand that our policies in the Sudan and Somalia have helped create the current crisis in Kenya.

NGOs, faith-based organizations and humanitarian organizations should prepare now for the earthquake that will hit Kenya within the next several years. It may not be an earthquake of the geological type, but an economic and political earthquake. In the post election violence of late 2007, over a 1,000 people were killed. The numbers could be much higher if humanitarian and educational organizations do not work with all governments to address the economic and political house of straw supporting this particular government.

It is a task and action that we should have been addressing in Haiti. All of our good words, huge humanitarian response and sympathy for Haiti does not absolve of us of our failure to address the underbelly of poverty that has defined this nation for so many decades. The earthquake and the hurricanes before it have given us a snapshot of the desperate poverty that defines this country. After the humanitarian response – what will we do to address the poverty? How we answer that question in Haiti and in other impoverished nations around the globe will determine our capacity to be humane.

To support a humanitarian response in Haiti, go to www.ncm.org and make a contribution to disaster relief. Then over the next several decades donate time, resources and intellectual, spiritual and moral capital to strengthen the social and economic infrastructure of this country.

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