by ZACH ROSENBERG
The Haitian government has partially collapsed in the aftermath of the earthquake that is estimated to have killed upwards of 50,000 people. The quake devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital and largest city, leaving millions homeless and hungry. While President Rene Preval is appearing in public to speak with the media and beg for international assistance, two days after the initial earthquake there appears little sign that the Haitian government is functioning on any level.
Infrastructure in Port-au-Prince is completely destroyed: emergency aid shipments are stuck in bottlenecks at every level. Local and ad-hoc hospitals are totally overwhelmed, and reports of horribly wounded but untreated victims are common. There is little or no security on the streets, and reports are starting to trickle in describing activities typical of security voids. MINUSTAH, the 9,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force, is bringing back troops from other parts of the country, soon to be augmented by nearly 6,000 U.S. troops. Given the scale and urgency of emergency rescue and aid distribution, it is unclear whether establishing security in Port-au-Prince will be a primary role.
There are, as of the time of writing, no dependable numbers reflecting the scale of devastation, but the number of dead is being described in terms of hundreds of thousands. Millions are estimated to be newly homeless, in need of food, water and shelter. As the world comes to terms with the staggering damage, aid organizations have been pouring in at such a rate that the Port-au-Prince airport is gridlocked; some have begun landing in Santo Domingo, the capital of the neighboring Dominican Republic, to make what is on a good day a six hour drive to Port-au-Prince.
Though many minds are justifiably devoted to more pressing emergency relief matters, two days after the earthquake some people have begun to begun to speculate on Haiti’s future. Even at its highest points, modern Haiti has been an utter political mess, unable or unwilling to provide for its citizens, and a constant source of worry for surrounding nations. Though last week some Haiti-watchers were cautiously optimistic about political developments, many relating to an upcoming election, it is clear that the earthquake does not merely represent a setback — it completely invalidates all views of the situation.
Some thoughts need to be turned to the future. A few months from now, when the dead are mostly buried and the sense of urgency has faded from relief efforts, may be when Haiti is most in need of help.
Though President Rene Preval remains a titular authority figure, it is wholly plausible that his partly-collapsed government may collapse altogether. Political turmoil is to be expected, but political catastrophe is avoidable despite the physical catastrophe. Contingency plans need to be formed as soon as possible in the event that the Haitian government cannot reorganize.
There are a few steps, off the top of my head, that seem worth considering for the near future. One is debt relief: Haiti has been in massive debt from the time of its independence, and it should be clear at this point that there may never be repayment, and that burdening Haiti with interest payments is an invitation to chaos.
Another is development aid on a much larger scale. With its economic and bureaucratic center completely devoid of electricity, clean water and services for the massive new population of homeless, hungry and wounded largely absent, government aid agencies will need to step up long-term development efforts to a new level simply in order to stave off chaos. A corollary to this is a greatly increased security force, supposedly to come under U.S. or U.N. auspices.
It is common to see aid agencies pour into a nation after a disaster, then to see that aid decreased as it is diverted to more new disasters in other parts of the world. It is an understandable and perhaps inevitable phenomenon, but it sometimes results in more problems of such magnitude that the cycle is repeated; Haiti is a prime candidate for such treatment, but it is too close to home to safely ignore. Committing to long-term presence may end up being the cheapest, and most helpful option.
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