I just finished reading Paul Farmer’s Haiti After the Earthquake which provides first-hand accounts of the earthquake on January 12, 2010, and the hectic days immediately following the event. The book also examines Haiti’s troubled history and looks forward to the future of Haiti as it attempts to “build back better.”
Here are a few observations from the book:
1. I appreciated little glimpses of Farmer’s faith coming through. I really know nothing about his spiritual life but I loved how his apparent faith came through naturally and in a lot of small ways. It came through in his subtle phraseology (“by the grace of God” instead of “by good luck”) or a description of his daily routine (“I didn’t feel like doing my morning prayers so instead…”). Either way, I appreciated the non-preachy and natural expressions of faith.
2. Natural disasters aren’t purely natural. This point was stressed throughout the book. Yes, the earthquake was a “natural” occurrence, but the disproportionate impact that it caused was the result of many man-driven decisions. Haiti was especially vulnerable to the devastation of an earthquake because of its poor infrastructure, its acute poverty, and its weak government. It is especially vulnerable to hurricanes because of deforestation. It is especially vulnerable to cholera (which came to the country shortly after the earthquake) because of its poor health system. And these maladies have historical roots, both from within the country (such as a long series of coupes and corrupt governments) to outside the country (like a large debt imposed by France and American foreign policy that crippled the public sector). Whatever the precise reasons – and this is, in many ways, a partisan book – it’s clear that the devastation caused by the earthquake was, in many ways, an “unnatural” disaster.
If you want evidence for structural evil, Haiti’s history could be exhibit A.
3. The public sector (i.e., civil government) can be a source for good. One of Farmer’s more controversial arguments is that the aid system in Haiti is broken because, while there are more aid organizations in Haiti than anywhere else in the Hemisphere (maybe the world?) a very tiny percentage of that aid goes to the government. The reasons why are fairly understandable – the government is pretty ineffective. But this creates a problem because a government starved for resources will be ineffective and the cycle will continue. This completely ineffective government was one of the reasons why the earthquake was so devastating and rebuilding so slow.
4. The aid system is broken in Haiti. Despite the massive amount of aid pledged to Haiti both before and after the earthquake, only a small portion of it ever arrived. And of the aid that did arrive, much of it was used ineffectively. For example, aid organizations provide money to build homes in Haiti (a good thing) but hire expensive foreign contractors to do the work. If the work were done by Haiti contractors it would both provide work for Haitians, which is desperately needed, and would be much more cost effective. Additionally, the US had a long history of a food aid policy that give large incentives to American farmers to provide food for Haiti, which indirectly led to the depleted capacity of Haitian farmers to provide food for their own people. The result is that Haiti is even more dependent on foreign food and lacks its own production capacity to feed itself. The story of Haiti re-enforced what I watched in the “Poverty Cure” documentary.
5. Farmer’s negative predictions pretty much came true. Near the end of the book Farmer offers positive and negative predictions of what Haiti might look like in five years. The book was completed one year after the earthquake and this year, 2015, is five years after the earthquake. So I decided to look up Haiti. Was it closer to Farmer’s optimistic predictions or his pessimistic predictions? Unfortunately it’s the latter. The same problems that plagued Haiti before the earthquake continue to do so after.
6. There’s still hope. Paul Farmer (at the time of writing this book) lived in Rwanda, another country which suffered a terribly traumatic event. Despite the obvious dissimilarities (earthquake vs. genocide) the book focuses a lot on the similarities. Rwanda, despite its many challenges, has been able to turn the corner – or so it appears, at least for now. If there was hope for Rwanda, there is, by God’s grace, hope for Haiti.