The lesson of Haiti is we need faster global economic growth

15 01 2010

The truly dreadful events in Haiti are the product of an unavoidable natural event. Earthquakes are not something that can be prevented. But what is preventable is the huge impact they can have on people who are affected by them.

The earthquake had a magnitude of 7 and the devastation and loss of life are enormous. However, two similar sized earthquakes in California within the past 30 years had the following effects;

The last major earthquake in the state occurred in the Northridge section of Los Angeles in 1994. The magnitude 6.7 earthquake damaged freeways, killed at least 70 people and did $20 billion in damage. On the evening of Oct. 17, 1989, a 6.9 magnitude quake hit the San Francisco and Monterey Bay regions. The 10-15 second tremor left 63 dead, more than 3,700 injured and thousands homeless.

Bad as these effects were, they is no comparison with the damage currently being inflicted on the Haitians. The reason for this differential impact is very simple. California is a wealthy, advanced state which has invested huge amounts in earthquake proofing buildings, bridges and public spaces. Haiti is a wretchedly impoverished country which has invested next to nothing.

Reaction to the earthquake in the west has focused on the need for aid, both as a short-term solution and a longer term one to the problems of Haitian society. However well-intentioned this may be, nothing short of a major transformation of the economy of poor countries such as Haiti can prevent natural disasters of this type creating disproportionate suffering.

The  depth of the  problems facing Haiti is fully revealed by the inability of aid donors to reach those who need help. Haiti has only one tiny airport which has meant that aid by air has had to be turned away. Its port, unprotected from the effects of earthquake, is blocked making shipping aid in impossible. Its infrastructure is primitive and its social services inadequate. Helping the injured and homeless can only have  a very temporary positive impact on the lives of the Haitians.

The plight of Haiti should be remembered by those who advocate slowing down global economic growth or making it more ‘sustainable’. Haitians can only ever look forward to relief from poverty when growth in the global economy has enebled poor countries to develop. Many of Haiti’s problems originated from its past as a French colony. Like many third world countries its economy has been distorted and exploited by more powerful western countries over the centuries. This imbalance of power can only ever be addressed through economic development, rising living standards and concomitant social and political progress.

The clear lesson of Haiti, and the many other poor regions unnecessarily afflicted by natural disasters, is that we should reject calls for limits on global economic growth. We in the west cannot in all conscience refuse the poor of the undeveloped world the same rights to a decent life that we enjoy.