Tuesday’s earthquake in Haiti has piled more misery on an already hard-pressed population. The International Red Cross believes up to 3 million people—one-third of its population—could be impacted by the disaster. Haitian President René Préval has called the situation a “catastrophe,” and UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon said Haiti is now facing a “major humanitarian disaster.”
The first priority is finding and treating the survivors. U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah—the U.S. government’s point person for this disaster—said Wednesday that, “The goal of the relief effort in the first 72 hours will be very focused on saving lives. That is the president’s top priority and is what the president has directed us to do.”
American assistance will be crucial in these early days as the 7.0 magnitude earthquake has devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince. The hospitals that are not destroyed are overcrowded. Even the Presidential Palace and the Ministry of Justice have collapsed in a city that lay in ruins.
After the emergency response, the reconstruction and development phase will likely last for decades. Absent this commitment, already high levels of poverty will rise, emigration will likely increase as individuals look to escape the deteriorating environment, and the future of Cité Soleil—the densely populated shanty town in Port-au-Prince already known for high levels of poverty and violence—is of particular concern with its large, unemployed youth population.
This devastating news follows a difficult past few years. Soaring food prices led thousands to riot in Port-au-Prince in 2008. Students protested in support of a minimum wage increase in 2009, and the global financial crisis hit Haiti particularly hard. And four hurricanes ravaged the country just in the past year. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who delayed her Asia-Pacific trip to deal with the crisis, said, “[i]t is biblical the tragedy that continues to stalk Haiti and the Haitian people.”
Unfortunately, the Haitian Government is not in position to respond to the deadly earthquake. The World Bank ranked Haiti in the bottom 6 percent on government effectiveness in 2006. And as CAP’s 2009 report, “Haiti’s Changing Tide: A Sustainable Security Case Study” highlights, “The government does not have adequate funds and systems to provide services to the people in a manner that meets their essential needs and builds governmental legitimacy.” Given limited capacity in non-emergency situations, the Haitian government will need the strong support of the international community to overcome this tragedy.
USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance is the lead government agency tasked with providing and coordinating American assistance to international emergencies and disasters. This office has deployed a team that arrived to Haiti within 24 hours of the earthquake to conduct a damage assessment.
USAID’s work in places like Haiti is largely unknown by the American public. But the agency is at the forefront of helping the world’s poor overcome such “biblical” disasters. In fact, OFDA has been responding to manmade and natural disasters since 1964. OFDA responded to 80 disasters affecting more than 202 million people in 62 countries in Fiscal Year 2008 alone.
USAID is at the forefront of such crises because it is the right thing to do and the American people are eager to alleviate disaster and poverty. These actions raise the United States’ standing in affected countries and around the world. In October of 2005, for example, an earthquake hit Pakistan, resulting in the deaths around 80,000 people. USAID responded and provided emergency relief to thousands of people affected by the earthquake. According to a public opinion poll conducted after the tragedy, support for Osama bin Laden declined significantly, opposition to terrorist tactics increased, and more Pakistanis were then favorable to the United States than unfavorable for the first time since September 11, 2001. The poll concluded: “The direct cause for this dramatic shift in Muslim opinion is clear: American humanitarian assistance for Pakistani earthquake victims.”
The point is not that the United States should provide humanitarian assistance to win friends. What is crucial to understand is that American values have far-reaching positive effects. Additionally, USAID is at the heart of U.S. foreign policy and its actions don’t usually make the headlines. The fact that U.S. values have found a voice through U.S. institutions is a sign of our common humanity.
Our hearts go out to the millions of victims of Tuesday’s earthquake. It is important that the international community help Haiti rebuild its already fragile infrastructure and institutions. But as the Haitian people have proved time and again, resiliency is one of their crowning characteristics.