Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti and the Fleeting Nature of Consciousness

The destruction and suffering in Haiti is incredible. The images are quite simply gut-wrenching. That much is obvious. But the more mind-boggling prospect to me is the thought of such an earthquake hitting a country that already has nothing. Now that I've seen the (lack of) infrastructure and personnel present in countries like Mozambique, I don't know what would happen if a cyclone or earthquake hit. Heck, some places look like they've already been hit.

In Haiti, and other developing nations during times of crisis, the aid is sorely needed. This is not a time for business approaches. This is not a time for sustainability or scalability. Expedient food, shelter, clean water, and medical assistance are simply what's required. In this respect I've been impressed by the American and international response. Perhaps because of a new American president, learning from past mistakes, or a desire to right the wrongs of Katrina, aid seems to be pouring into Haiti. This is a good start and it will save lives.

My bigger concern is what's in store for Haiti for the future. In my inbox over the past two days I've received 11 emails from people telling me how I can help. This is great: people are coming up with all kinds of ways to raise money. But it's also a time for glitz, glamor and fun. I've been invited to backyard barbecues, dinners at chic restaurants, and movie nights. iTunes and Wyclef Jean are also gunning for my dollar. I love the creativity, but my concern is what happens when when the peer pressure is gone. What happens when it's not "cool" to text in your donation to the Red Cross? What happens when the 3-second attention span of Americans like me is diverted by something like, say for example, Michael Jackson dying? (And I'm not downplaying this, so don't throw a fit) When it gets down to the actually rebuilding a nation, who will be left?

This is where I think business will be important. Certainly, support will need to come from all angles - foreign nations and aid agencies need to apply pressure for an efficient and transparent government, for example. But when there is a profit profit incentive, you can be sure businesses will stick around. Rwanda is an impressive example. Its government has worked hard to welcome businesses, and while all the credit isn't due to foreign business investments, a lot of the recent 8-10% economic growth is. The country's president has been welcoming to companies like Costco and Starbucks, both buying Rwandan coffee. The laws are accommodating to domestic business too - you can open a business in three weeks, quicker even than in Japan.

I like this thinking by the government. I believe it can happen in Haiti, and I hope the pressure and attention can continue from the US and abroad. My friend Richard, who I met in Bangladesh, visited Haiti a couple years back. He said the poverty he saw there was the worst he's ever seen. He said the population just wanted anything they could get for themselves, almost like survival of the fittest. Things seemed desperate and heartless - the people needed hope. If we stick around, maybe they will have hope.

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