(E) Watching the painful images of human losses from the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I cannot stop imagining how San Francisco will look like after the next big “ONE” such as a new 1906 earthquake. What would happen to the San Francis Hotel, the luxurious stores on Union Square, the financial district around Market Street, the Embarcadero, the Golden Gate, the Bay Bridge? Will San Francisco look like Port-au-Prince? Geophysicists are telling us that earthquakes do not kill people, but buildings do. Poorly constructed buildings in Port-au-Prince were waiting to kill their inhabitants. Buildings in San Francisco are supposed to have been designed with the safest building codes standards. However, I have personally always doubted the capacity of earthquake-proven architectures to hold a strong earthquake (and I sure hope to be wrong!). But even if most buildings in San Francisco would collapse under a 7.0 earthquake, the major difference between the Port-au-Prince earthquake and the next expected big one in San Francisco is simply that poor countries cannot endure extreme suffering from natural disasters while rich countries can, if not overcome, at least survive and surely recover from them. The confirmed death toll of Hurricane Katrina is at 1,836, while there is not a sure estimate yet of the death toll of the earthquake in Haiti, present estimates are now in the 300,000 range (may be more than the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 where 230,000 people died). The uniqueness of the tragedy in Haiti is the outcome of an extreme natural disaster occurring in an extremely poor country.
In his book “Collapse”, Jared Diamond compared the destiny of Haiti with the one of the Dominican Republic. Both states share the same island. But one country is the poorest out of Africa while the other has achieved some economic prosperity. Haiti has all the characteristics of an extremely poor country: highly crowded, deficient in natural resources, corrupted state, no school, no road and so a life for its inhabitants without water and food.
It is by all means not an accident, that after having been invaded by Russia, Afghanistan became the harbor for international terrorism. Isolated by its mountains, Afghanistan shared the same profile of a desperate country with Haiti: poverty, overpopulation, and environmental degradation. As noted by Jared Diamond about Haiti: “if one instead looks to the outside world to help through government aid, NGO initiatives, or private efforts, Haiti even lacks the capacity to utilize outside assistance effectively”. And, the same parallel applies to Afghanistan: poverty in Afghanistan has been one of the major challenges for the US and NATO to bring stability to the country.
Finally, the tragedy in Darfur illustrates again the strong relationship between poverty and unacceptable governance. Poverty grows with poor governance. And, poor governance maintains and exacerbates the tragedy of a population in basic needs of water and food. The heart of the crisis in Darfur is the lack of economic development. In her book “The Challenge for Africa”, Wangari Maathai explains the crisis of national identity in Africa where some ethnic share the power and the resources while others are desperately hungry. “while some of the political and social problems in Sudan, Chad, and Africa, in general, are the legacies of colonialism – arbitrary borders or the favoring of one micro-nation, which then has access to more resources at the expense of other communities – after more than forty years of independence, none of these excuses justify poor governance or leaders committing crimes against their own people. It is inexcusable for African leadership to fail to protect its own citizens and then complain or respond defensively when citizen seek help or redress elsewhere”.
The histories and crisis of Haiti, Afghanistan, and Darfur demonstrate why and how extreme poverty pushes desperation, depletes natural resources, leads to political instability. Poor countries collapse through natural disasters and implode into the violence of national crisis. They propagate environmental disasters, diseases, insecurity, and human migrations.
In addition, a lot of poor countries in Africa had their natural resources exploited by external richer powers from Europe during the colonization era or now by some developing countries from Asia hungry for trades and new natural resources with no respect for the countries, its people and its environment.
The United-Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) developed by the United-Nations General Assembly in 2000 structures global development policies, plans, and aids. The MDGs has eight goals to be met in 2015:
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality
5. Improve maternal health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
8. Develop a global partnership for development
Those eight goals are fantastic! Unfortunately, the UN MDGs are failing to make significant progress in some areas. And, the UN even acknowledges that fact itself: “With only five years left until the 2015 deadline to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on world leaders to attend a summit next September to boost progress towards the MDGs”.
The burdens to escape poverty are totally surmountable. Jeffrey Sachs, author of “The End of Poverty”, articulates the four fundamental types of investments to end poverty in a given state:
“The first is a boost to the productivity of the core livelihood, agriculture. This is the hallowed Green Revolution that initially lifts smallholder farmers out of subsistence. The second is health, including control of the main killers – infection, nutritional deficiencies, and unsafe childbirth – through the provision of preventative and curative health services. The third is education which ensures that households develop the requisite skills to navigate the local global economy. The fourth is infrastructure, essential for productivity in every sphere, including power, roads, safe water for drinking and sanitation, phone services and Internet connectivity, and port services”.
After only two weeks, the aid to the Haiti earthquake provided by worldwide nations, in particular, the US and Europe have already provided over a billion dollars. The war in Afghanistan has cost to the US only around $300 billion dollars (add to that figure the contribution of other nations)! A US soldier in Iraq costs one million dollars a year while $75 can purchase the required equipment to chlorinate enough water to provide to 1,330 people, 20 gallons of clean water per day for 7 days (according to Doctors without Borders)! The cost of helping a poor country to deal with a natural disaster or a war is by no means comparable to the cost of investing in that country to eliminate poverty.
According to Jeffrey Sachs:
“The end of extreme poverty would require less than 1% of the annual income of the rich world to finance the crucial investments needed in the poorest countries to extricate them from the poverty trap (and even that modest transfer to the poor would be temporary, perhaps lasting only until 2025)”.
Poor nations such as Haiti, Afghanistan and Sudan and many others are going to some extreme hardships. Poverty is so deeply rooted into the bodies of those nations, that disempowerment paralyzes those nations. International aid is the fuel to start the engine of economic growth and higher living standards for those countries. Good governance will maintain it. And, education will expand it.
Global poverty is killing part of the world. And, the world cannot afford global poverty. So, why don’t we eradicate poverty? The problem is not a financing one: investments are modest nor a lack of solutions: solutions exist to eradicate global poverty, the problem is the inability of the world to achieve global goals, develop global cooperations and implement global solutions. And, we need to change that!
Eradicating poverty cannot be solved by governments, or by the private business sector, or by non-profitable organizations alone. Multiple stakeholders have contributed to global poverty and they all must be part of the solution. The poorest countries do not participate in our global marketplace and do not access our borderless Internet culture. We need first to provide them with food and water, environmental protection, disease surveillance and second help them to build their public, educational and infrastructure systems. Only when that is in place can they start building goods and services for their local economies and participate in trading with the rest of the world.
There is no reason why prosperity cannot be for all. In the end, we are only one species sharing the same planet.
• How You Can Help End Poverty?
• Jeffrey D. Sachs. The End of Poverty, Penguin Press
• Wangari Maathai, The Challenge for Africa, Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Pantheon
• Jared Diamond, Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Press
Note: The picture above is a young girl from a Pacific island.
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