Helping the Helpless in Haiti

January 15, 2010

by Pat Ryan

The pictures are hard to look at, the stories are hard to listen to and the magnitude of what has befallen the people of Haiti is hard to comprehend. In less than two minutes the earth dealt out an extremely violent spasm of death and destruction near the middle of a poverty stricken, sprawling metropolis of over two million people. The words mustered to explain the scope of destruction in the capital Port au Prince seemed inadequate to the task when you looked at the images of mile after mile of obliterated buildings and bodies piling up in the streets.

People familiar with the tragedies that have beset this, the poorest nation in the hemisphere, must have wondered how Haiti deserved such a fate. Years of struggling to overcome political instability, development shortfalls, corruption and crime, and massive poverty – about 80% of Haitians live below the poverty line, 50% in abject poverty – were piled upon by four hurricanes that ravaged the Caribbean nation less than two years ago. Now this.

The international community has rushed aid to those trapped in the rubble and for those surviving in the streets, but it fell to the United States – especially in the absence of a functioning local government – to step up as the nation that has the wherewithall to make a difference. The U.S. government quickly began sending disaster response teams, thousands of troops, many ships and aircraft, much-needed supplies and more. The Administration has pledged $100 million for the relief of Haiti and a Red Cross innovation – texting the word “Haiti” to number “9-0-9-9-9” to make a $10 donation to disaster relief – had collected over $8 million within 48 hours of the disaster, testimony to Americans’ generosity to those in need.

Community groups in Cookeville are also mustering aid for Haiti. The scale of the local work will undoubtedly be reported in these pages as there are efforts underway by area churches and student groups to organize relief efforts. Among them is this weekend’s donation collection point manned by Cookeville Rotarians at the South Jefferson Avenue Walmart. No matter what method of support is chosen it is important for all of us to take stock of the enormity of this disaster and do the right thing.

While the extraordinary efforts to get emergency humanitarian aid delivered will put a bandage on Haiti’s distress, the relief requirements will stretch out over weeks and months. A long-term commitment will be necessary but it’s difficult to comprehend how much will be required to restore the devastated country even to just the hardscrabble level that existed before the quake.

Haiti’s agony is playing out in the news and across America’s collective consciousness but it is only a high-speed portrayal of what is happening in many developing countries in slow motion. An international effort to tackle global poverty and distress including improvements in health, education, environmental sustainability and a host of other areas of need has been underway for years. It is called the Millennium Development Goals, or MDG, and is being pursued by the United States and other developed countries. Most Americans are probable unaware that among the goals is to cut in half the proportion of people in the world whose income is less than $1 a day by 2015. The latest estimates, as of 2005, show that 1.4 billion people on the planet, in developing countries, were living in extreme poverty. Achieving the goals will be tough. The UN Secretary General in advance of a major international meeting to review the MDG, said, “We have made important progress in this effort, and have many successes on which to build. But we have been moving too slowly to meet our goals.” He added, “Time is short. We must seize this historic moment to act responsibly and decisively for the common good.”

Acting on development goals and humanitarian support to the developing world can be a tough sell for governments, especially at a time of economic troubles of our own. But it’s important to keep some perspective about the level of need in places like Haiti. It may be startling to grapple with the fact that however great the need was in Haiti before the earthquake there are a couple of dozen countries that are in worse shape.

It is easy for people to develop fatigue in the face of these great needs but as President Obama noted when addressing the Haiti catastrophe, Americans have a “continued responsibility to act.” We should all hope that our great tradition of helping those in need, at home and abroad, continues and that “humanitarian” and “compassion” don’t become dirty words in the language of Americans. The stakes are too high.

Pat Ryan is a retired sailor and writer. He lives in Cookeville, Tennessee.

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