Bruce Moon is a professor of international relations. His research interests involve the international influences on economic development, especially the role of trade, aid, and foreign investment. He also studies cross-national variations in living standards with an emphasis on the basic needs of the poor and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.
Emergency relief required to get things back to normal in Haiti should not be confused with long-term efforts to achieve sustainable development and alleviate poverty. That said, there is no sharp distinction between the temporary needs created by a natural or man-made disaster and the long-term challenges of development.
For one thing, disasters are such a frequent occurrence in Haiti that it is hard to know what “normal” is. Just in the last two years, there have been four “external shocks” that have set back Haiti’s drive for growth and stability—two natural disasters and two of the man-made variety. Not included are the frequent political upheavals that have resulted in aid suspensions.
In addition to the recent earthquake, Haiti suffered a sequence of hurricanes in September 2008 that produced damage equivalent to 15% of GDP. Earlier in 2008, the spike in global food prices sent inflation soaring. Since most Haitians spend 2/3 or more of their income on food in the best of times, the doubling of food prices threatened starvation and produced intense rioting in Port-au-Prince.
The last shock was the global financial crisis that has greatly reduced the remittances coming in from the two million Haitians living abroad, a source of funds that constitutes almost 20% of Haitian incomes and helps about half of all Haitian families. (It is a double-edged sword that Haiti earns twice as much from the export of people as from the exports of all goods and services combined. Four-fifths of Haiti’s college-educated citizens live outside of the country, and according to a recent poll, 67% of Haitians would emigrate if they could. )
Of course, for many Haitians, even the gravest and most immediate post-quake needs are either a continuation of their normal daily life or only a mild exacerbation of their permanent condition. Even before these four shocks, well over half of all Haitians lived on less than $1 per day and three-quarters subsisted on less than $2 day. Only about 10% had electricity before the earthquake and about half potable water. Since about 1 in 4 Haitian children under five were chronically malnourished, it is shocking to realize that many of the Haitians we see on television in misery—subsisting only on food handouts from relief agencies and lacking any kind of home—may actually be better off in terms of daily needs for food, water, and shelter than they were before the earthquake.