Climatologists continue to alert us that natural disasters are destined to increase substantially as a result of our planet heating up through climate change. We can attempt to deny it but the evidence continues to pile up. And now here we are again on the outside looking in on the worst disaster to hit Japan since World War Two. We are staggered at the video, horrified by the personal stories, terrified at the force of nature. We are a generous people and at the same time our eyes witness tsunami images we are reaching for our wallets to do our own little part for recovery.
There is only one problem with this scenario: we’ve been through it before – a little over a year ago in fact. As Japanese tragedy preoccupies our thoughts, we little realize that the it has already eclipsed Haiti. Citizens, media, governments – have largely moved on. Tragically, Haitian residents can’t.
I spoke with one of the island’s medical doctors this past week and he can sense we are losing our focus. “Our people can’t forget,” he uttered sadly, “how can we?” Indeed. In just 35 seconds about 300,000 people died and more than one million desperate people in three cities became homeless in an instant. “We will need help for years,” he concludes sadly.
The massive attention focused on relief efforts had a certain “slam-dunk” aspect to them. Bill Clinton got involved, the UN, even the likes of actor Sean Penn – the array of support was impressive. The trouble is that failure – international and Haitian – followed quickly. By the time former Governor General Michelle Jean visited her homeland on the first anniversary, she could only weep at the lack of progress. “Official commitment have not been honoured,” she observed not even two months ago, adding, “Only a miniscule portion of what was promised has been paid out. The Haitian people feel abandoned.”
What do we say to this? We were generous, remarkably so. Didn’t she just go a little over the top with her statement? Or was she correct?
However we see it, there are some lessons to be learned from the Haitian experience. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Canadians were generous, donating millions of dollars in a time of recession. The Harper government was on the ground quickly, seeking opportunities to apply Canadian generosity.
But there were problems. Following its quick intervention, significant confusion resulted and Canadians rightfully wondered where CIDA was applying their matched donations. In Parliament, a year later we are still attempting to acquire information as to our ongoing governmental response. Has it been successful or not? Despite certain accounts of success, we just don’t know and perhaps some kind of official assessment would be helpful.
In our compassionate moments of observation concerning the struggle of the Haitian people, we perhaps blindly overlooked how that country’s own administration and laws have stolen the recovery right out from under the international community’s collective nose. Corrupt officials lined their own pockets with aid largesse instead of channeling the resources to their own struggling people. This is the way things had been prior to the earthquake and there was no way such malfeasance could be ferreted out in time to develop and effective relief response.
At the Foreign Affairs Committee recently we heard from Red Cross officials how the lack of a proper land registry system has resulted in huge disputes over territory. Just as aid agencies erect shelters, three or four families come along stating that the land is historically theirs. The shelters then have to be taken down and a suitable place found elsewhere. How can an effective response proceed when such obstacles are strewn along the path?
These are difficult truths to digest and they will only discourage us if we don’t plan for the long-term. A portion of the 10-year plan for recovery concerns administrative reform and the development of an equitable system of land registry. It will take years. Michelle Jean failed to mention the devastating part Haitian officials have played, yet she was on to something when stating that perhaps people have forgotten the struggling people of the island. Both Haitians and Canadians will have to undertake the kind of international development that can be painfully slow but is capable of building the kind of foundation required for true recovery. If we remember to do it, that is.