After decades of providing $billions in assistance to Haiti, and faced with a fresh catastrophe, the United States has rushed in to help. But the results promise to be no better than past efforts - which have been disastrous for our small neighbor.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, January 19, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Haiti and the United States - The Limits of Feel-Good Assistance

Although Americans are to be congratulated - and congratulate themselves - on their response to the havoc and crisis in Haiti, the Haitian catastrophe is beyond repair - and American intervention may be exacerbating it.

I watched as Keith Olbermann interviewed a correspondent "on the ground" - as they say, and say, and say. The correspondent described visiting a village 15 miles outside the devastated capital, Port-au-Prince. It has received no aid whatsoever. As he told of watching people digging out with their own hands and shovels, he praised the self-efficacy of these residents. But he failed to draw the obvious conclusion - that their self-reliance contrasted with the dependence, impotence, and self-destructiveness of the Port-au-Prince culture.

A woman accompanying Penn. Governor Ed Rendell's mercy mission spoke at a press conference after bringing 53 orphans to the United States, "We've run into roadblocks at every turn - we've been accused of kidnapping and worse." Who accused them? Why? Do Haitians perhaps resent us importing their children?

And still, we pour $millions into the country. Seemingly every show business luminary has donated $tens of thousands of their personal wealth - some (like Sandra Bullock and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt) as much as a million dollars.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has presented the most devastating analysis of this situation: "This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story." Beyond this, Brooks notes that Haitians were already receiving massive amounts of aid - to no avail - even though its national population is roughly the same as New York city's. "More than 10,000 organizations perform missions of this sort in Haiti. By some estimates, Haiti has more nongovernmental organizations per capita than any other place on earth." (Quite a few of these people have also died, rest their souls.)

Here's the hard part to take, from Brooks:

"Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth - with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other."

Into this mix, we attempt to inject $millions - ultimately $billions - of public and private aid. But the results are perplexing to us - the more effort we make, the worse things seem to get. Compare these headlines from a single edition of the New York Times (Jan. 18):

A Deluge of Donations via Text Messages

Aid Arrives but Few Are Lucky to Get It

As Haitians Flee, the Dead Go Uncounted

Defiant Vow to Rebuild Amid Ruins and Bodies

Rebuild what? Haiti is the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere.

Meanwhile, the continuing death and destruction is beyond American comprehension - and tolerance - which will lead us to soon avert our glances.

Already 200,000 Haitians are reported to have died. But an obviously-stricken NBC medical editor Nancy Snyderman described the situation "on the ground": "A week after the earthquake, I thought the crisis would have passed from a medical standpoint. But when I arrived, I found the medical crisis was just heating up. People are only now making their way to medical facilities (which took many days to establish).

"They arrive with broken bones and wounds. And the message is ‘amputate or die.' If you come in alone, you'll die - there is no aftercare - that can only be provided by a loved one or family member. The children that show up here alone will in all likelihood soon die." The naïve stateside interviewer asks about prostheses for the amputees. Snyderman seemed stunned by the question - there are no prostheses - nor time, expertise, and space to fit them.

Our relationship with Haiti - about 750 miles from the Florida coast - has not worked for that country. And we seemingly are incapable of providing the help to reverse this - no matter how many occasional survivors rescue teams are able to pull out of the rubble a week after the catastrophe (rescues that stir all of us), and no matter how many hundreds - thousands - of orphans we adopt and move to the United States.