January 21, 2013

This month marks the three year anniversary of the earthquake that struck Haiti’s capital and outlying region.  Over three hundred thousand people died.  Those who survived found their country ravaged; schools, hospitals, homes, and government buildings destroyed.  Large populations of people found themselves with nowhere to take their children except for vast tent cities with appalling living conditions—no clean water, no real shelter, no way to work, no food for their families.  A bleak place from which to begin the long road to recovery.

In Haiti: After the Earthquake Paul Farmer details how this “acute on chronic” event came to be, that is how a historically crisis wrought area laid the foundation for a true catastrophe.  The events of January 12, 2010, had worst devastation in Haiti then a similar earthquake would have had almost anywhere else.  For those of us far from the disaster site, it is difficult to grasp the situation that faced many Haitians.  The sheer impact of the earthquake and how it changed lives drastically, but also the role, for good or bad, that aid played in the aftermath.

Famer points out that before the earthquake took place, most of the country had little access to the services that form the basis for a good standard of living, like clean drinking water and proper sanitation.   A high unemployment rate and low education levels served only to make life more difficult for both rural and urban living.  Farmer dedicates an entire chapter to the history of the nation and how many of its challenges, seemingly coming from all sides, had resulted in the pre-earthquake climate.

Throughout the book there are first and secondhand accounts of what it was like to experience the earthquake.  Though the stories are multinational, they are all littered with searches for family, attempts at rescue, destroyed homes, the difficulty in receiving aid and the flipside of trying to deploy it, physical injuries, and deaths.  It is truly harrowing the extent of  loss and suffering that has struck so many people.   Farmer writes of his first glimpse of Port-au-Prince that “Everywhere buildings spilled into the streets.  Most commonly, concrete slabs—the buildings’ floors—were pancaked down upon themselves, and it was from these buildings that the smell of death emanated (66).”

However, Famer’s primary focus is not on the natural disaster itself, something we cannot hope to control or fight, but on the factors that we do have power over—the world’s response in helping Haiti.  For this reason, Haiti: After the Earthquake is imperative reading for those working in development.  There are some success stories of doctors who helped numerous people, even while suffering their own grief, organizations that brought much needed medical equipment and food, and people around the world that donated to try and help.  But there have also been many, many setbacks, both in the first few days after January 12 and in the following year.  Farmer details breakdowns in communication, difficulties in setting priorities, unmet requests for aid and monetary assistance, and so many other issues.

These predicaments are why Farmer’s champion sentiment of “building back better” is so important.  Farmer quotes the hope President Clinton has in that “Haitians have fought adversity for centuries.  There’s so much talent here, and perhaps they can turn this reversal into some new opportunities (78).”

The reconstruction efforts have to provide a better city and a better working government as this is the way to truly try and avoid a repeated experience.

To find Port-au-Prince better than it once was would be a success story of a nation and of a world trying to help.  It has been a long road so far with many obstacles but reading Haiti: After the Earthquake will help you understand what happened in Haiti and empower us all to make informed decisions and how to better support those in need.

-Rebecca Zornow

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