Doctors, soldiers and rescue teams can’t cure Haiti’s underlying ills.
The images and reports coming out of Haiti are heartbreaking. The unbearable visions of children wandering amidst the debris, families in distress abandoned in the rubble, and the endless rows of dead bodies profoundly disturb our sense of humanity and stir us to immediate action. But these visions also weigh heavily when we have the courage to admit that the suffering of the Haitian people did not begin on Jan. 12.
In Haiti, as in Bangladesh and New Orleans, natural catastrophes wreak the worst damage among the weakest, poorest and most destitute populations. If the tragedy in Haiti calls for urgent action to help the victims of the earthquake, it also should impel us to take action to reduce the vast inequalities that continue to plague the world
Finding emergency solutions right now means relying on the people of Haiti, who mobilized immediately despite overwhelming obstacles; if given the means, they are in the best position to tend to the most pressing wounds. The Haitian government, which was so fragile yesterday and is so weak today, will be all the more vulnerable tomorrow if we don’t provide support to help restore its authority and capabilities. Last but not least, we need to address the most urgent necessities: locating and extricating survivors from the rubble, setting up emergency hospitals, and then quickly setting in motion the reconstruction process, which unfortunately will be a very long one.
All this requires a high level of expertise and planning. The competent organizations that are mobilized must have the means to work without being hampered by well-meaning but poorly structured teams anxious to help. This would be best accomplished by reinforcing the United Nations–which is also mourning its own–in its vital mission as coordinator in the relief efforts.
But however vital the aid to the earthquake victims, and the extraordinary mobilization of the international community, we must not forget the deeper realities. Before the catastrophe, 80% of the Haitian people were living below the poverty level, 65% of the labor force was unemployed and one out of every four Haitians was suffering from malnutrition. And these figures will tragically increase as a result of the earthquake. The reality is that we live in a world of growing inequalities between countries and between individuals. A growing number of people are denied access to global public goods, that is, decent health care, food and education. Beyond the current emergency, which demands our immediate attention, these are the veritable ills from which Haiti suffers. Sending doctors, rescue teams and soldiers will not cure these ills. We need to take a long, hard look into the global playing rules.
Free trade does not provide universal access to global public goods, despite all the potential for development it affords. Government intervention is indispensable, particularly through official development assistance from one country to another. However, development aid is increasingly difficult to secure, impacted as it is by the adverse effects the financial crisis has had on the richest nations.
If we sincerely wish to assist Haiti, and all those threatened by similar tragedies, we must find ways to generate further resources to remedy the blatant inequalities that undermine our society. Without the budget to accomplish this, new sources of funding must be located: This is the philosophy behind the United Nations’ push to find innovative ways to finance development and global health care.
UNITAID, for instance, currently raises $400 million per year through a virtually painless microtax on airline tickets. Created in 2006 by Presidents Lula da Silva of Brazil and Jacques Chirac of France, UNITAID has been able to provide care for three out of four children in the world being treated for AIDS. Similar mechanisms need to be developed in order to reduce the chances that future earthquakes will produce such tragic consequences. This is, more than ever, an urgent necessity for our world.
It would be a huge mistake to view the tragedy in Haiti merely as a natural catastrophe when it is clearly as much of an economic catastrophe: The fragility of the buildings, non-existent telecommunications, food shortages and the lack of health care facilities, as well as the enormous challenge that lies ahead in order to reconstruct the country, are ample proof of this.
Philippe Douste-Blazy is chairman of UNITAID and undersecretary general of the United Nations for innovative finance.