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Monday, 8 February 2010
Page: 780


Ms PARKE (7:25 PM) —At 4.53 pm on 12 January, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, inflicting an almost unparalleled natural disaster upon a nation that is among the least equipped to deal with the consequences. Upwards of 150,000 people have been confirmed as dead; 200,000 people are injured, many severely; more than one million people are displaced; and there has been massive destruction of infrastructure. Haiti’s Prime Minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, says the current emergency may last 12 months, while the reconstruction could take up to 10 years.

The urgent need for a well-resourced, comprehensive and coordinated response to the earthquake has been complicated by a number of factors, not least in the case of the UN and NGOs by the toll taken on aid personnel and facilities in Haiti. The headquarters building of the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSTAH, completely collapsed, killing almost 100 staff, including the head and deputy head of the mission and those officials responsible for emergency and disaster management.

Of course, the terrible magnifier of this disaster is that even before the quake Haiti was the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Two-thirds of Haiti’s population were living below the poverty line, 58 per cent of the population were undernourished and a quarter of Haiti’s children under five were moderately or severely underweight. Half of Haiti’s children did not attend school and there was no effective public sewage system. Much of Haiti is eroded and barren as a result of deforestation, and this undermines subsistence farming efforts, drives up food prices and leaves the country vulnerable to natural disasters. Senior UN official John Bevan has commented in an article entitled ‘Poverty kills people, not nature’, that in 2004 5,000 people died because of two heavy rain showers. Why? Because people are so poor that they cannot afford even the deforested land and ‘build their shacks in the places nobody owns, mainly in dry river valleys which have flash floods once a year’.

The Australian government and many Australians have donated generously towards the appeals for Haiti, to UN agencies like UNICEF as well as the many NGOs doing fantastic work on the ground. Yet it is possible for us to contribute more. While Haiti and its long-suffering people may seem remote to Australians, its history offers a lesson for us all on the historical and structural causes of poverty. Haiti is a former French slave colony that achieved independence in 1804 through a slave revolution but continued to suffer through a series of dictatorships and from foreign intervention and economic exploitation. An example of the latter was France’s demand, supported by embargoes against Haiti by England and the US, for compensation of 90 million francs for lost property—such ‘property’ including the slaves themselves—as the price for recognising Haiti’s independence in 1825. These demands crippled the young country for more than a century as it struggled to pay off high-interest loans taken out to pay France. Haiti used to be self-sufficient in the production of rice, but in the 1980s the IMF insisted Haiti abolish its import tariffs and the dumping of rice surpluses from developed countries followed, thereby destroying Haiti’s rural economy and driving people out of agriculture to shanty towns in the capital.

Further commentary on Haiti’s suffering through outside intervention is contained in an article published on newmatilda.com titled ‘Haiti’s 200-year earthquake’. John Bevan also writes:

We can only defend ourselves from the forces of nature if we have some financial resources.

…           …           …

It’s hard not to see these deaths as calculated sacrifices to an imposed and brutal economic model … As the dust settles on the dead and dying in Port-au-Prince, let’s give a thought to the next batch of paupers who will be killed not by nature, which makes no class distinction, but by their poverty which leaves them vulnerable to even the most predictable downpour.

In the context of Australia’s response to the Haiti disaster, many people in the community were appalled by Senator Joyce’s suggestion last week that the opposition will consider cutting Australia’s international aid budget. He has since tried to justify his comments by claiming that Australia should not borrow funds only to send them overseas. Is he not aware that our recent moderate borrowing was made in the cause of underpinning the Australian domestic economy? If he is concerned about sending funds overseas, does he also propose that we cut the defence procurement budget on that basis? International development and global security are two sides of the same coin and Australia cannot afford an opposition, let alone an alternative government, that makes reckless statements on such important matters.

In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake the international community has an opportunity to assist in the longer term a country of former slaves that was given little chance from the beginning. It can contribute generously to the reconstruction effort, including the redevelopment of Haiti’s agricultural sector; it can and should consider forgiving Haiti’s existing foreign debt; and it can support democracy in Haiti free of outside interference.