Let me start out by saying, there are of course no easy answers when it comes to situations like this.
I tend to be a cynic, and so I have been waiting for nearly a week to post on the Haiti issue. It has been terrible to read about the destruction, thinking of the places I saw nearly 10 years ago that may have been lain waste in a few short minutes. Yet, seeing people's response to the horrific aftermath of the earthquake, and reading the calls for donations to Red Cross and other aid organizations, has been a good reminder that even if only for brief moments, most people still have some sort of compassion in them that responds to tragedy.
On the other hand, my cynicism continues because the reality is that these momentary outbursts of altruism are rarely sustained. If you have given for Haiti, and urged others to do the same, please understand this is not an attack on you. It is important to help support the massive rescue effort going on right now, as well as the increasing medical needs that are enveloping the area. A friend from high school posted an announcement that groups from my hometown were leaving immediately to go help out. But at the same time I was reading how aid organizations were having trouble landing their planes in the overcrowded airport, and while I'm sure they figured out a way to be useful, I fear a few things in the long-run.
First, I am remembering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In particular, I am remembering that the flood of money that went to the Red Cross did not always meet the needs of people in the affected areas. Tons of organizations organized trips in the first year or two to help with the rebuilding efforts there. As salient as those needs were, it quickly became obvious that the real bulk of time and money would be needed for a sustained rebuilding of the city (structurally and communally) over a long period of time. In the wake of excruciatingly slow progress in that rebuilding, we have witnessed such things as FEMA's infamous woes with the allocation and safety of their emergency housing trailers. Could we see a similar imbalance in how time and resources are allocated in Haiti, complete with inappropriate no-bid contracts and lack of accountability?
Second, though I make no claims to expertise, I did get the chance to go to Haiti for a very short trip in 2001 and saw up close some of the large-scale obstacles to stability in that country. Some of those factors, such as infrastructure, have come into play in the difficulties encountered in aid distribution (which is a constant problem in areas receiving large amounts of aid. We only heard about it in Haiti because of intense media coverage). Some of these obstacles have been in place for so long, that no amount of aid seems to do more than skim the surface of reaching long-term solutions.
Third, I'm very curious about what our responses say about us and our nations. There have been two excellent pieces in the NY Times on that subject. The first is an article about the amazing response to the earthquake from Israel and the soul-searching it has prompted for Israelis in regards to Gaza.
The second is an op-ed that tries to put the recent events in Haiti within a larger historical framework. I am not fully onboard with all of his historical analysis of Haiti's governance issues, but he gives a helpful summary for those of us who are not read up on our Haitian history. What I found most intriguing, however, were his treatment of the self-referential attitude of the US government and the US citizenry toward Haiti. Very thought-provoking indeed.
So, friends, continue to be generous. Continue to give of your time and resources. I only ask you to take a moment and consider what avenues might produce the most long-term benefit from the small part that we can do as everyday people.