Looking at the crisis in Haiti through the lens of poverty & development

It is nearly impossible not to know about the crisis in Haiti by now. Yet amidst all the news stories and relief efforts, it is hard to find information about the historical, economic and political context for what is happening in Haiti. At this urgent time, it is heartwarming that so many people are reaching out a hand, offering their time and money to support the disaster relief effort in Haiti. But it is also just as important to ask the tough questions – why is this happening and what can be done, not just in the short term, but in the medium and long term, to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again?

In a recent Op Ed, David Brooks made an important point – “This is not a natural-disaster story. This is a poverty story.” To support this assertion, he points out that when a magnitude 7 earthquake hit the Bay Are in 1989, sixty-three people were killed. This week, when an earthquake of the same magnitude hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died. (New York Times, Jan 15)

Whether you agree or disagree with all of what Brooks writes in this piece, his central point is undeniable – this is a critical juncture not just for the people of Haiti, but also for the international community. There are serious questions about poverty and international development that we should be asking as we look beyond the immediate relief efforts to the long term. This disaster, as horrible as it is, has shed light on some of the most critical shortcomings of the international communities efforts to address poverty in the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

In the October 2008 edition of the World Savvy Monitor, we examine poverty and international development and analyze the different types of aid used by the international community to fight poverty. I encourage you to read this section of the Monitor as you begin to think past the relief efforts in Haiti to what comes next. What works and what doesn’t? What are we missing? Is it a cultural thing, as Brooks suggests? Where does microfinance fit in and how far can it get us?

It is particularly important that you have this discussion in your classrooms so that students understand the context behind this disaster and think about short vs. long term aid. The Choices program offers a great unit Dilemmas of Foreign Aid:  Debating U.S. Priorities, Policies, and Practices, to help your students learn about US foreign aid. Check out the Poverty and International Development Classroom Companion for more ideas of how to talk with your students about the situation in Haiti across disciplines.

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