What Would Jesus Do?

June 16, 2004

Haiti Update XIII: What Would Jesus Do?

By Avi Steinberg

The disastrous flooding Haiti has suffered recently is less a natural disaster than a man-made catastrophe. Which is why it's the moral obligation of the US to help.

The calamitous flooding that has taken place in Haiti is not fully a natural disaster. In fact, there are three ways in which the staggering death toll is partly the work of people and not the gods. The first is deforestation. The specter of devastating flash flooding and mudslides exists in large part as the result of massive deforestation — trees are a natural barrier to the kind of flooding that we have seen of late. And why are Haitians stripping their land bare of every last tree? Because they are poor and they need fire wood in order to survive.

The fact is, the thousands of deaths that have occurred, the loss of homes and the possibility for epidemic outbreaks and more death are simply more results of Haiti's impoverishment. This is a grim example of how poverty locks people in an ineluctable destiny of death and destruction. Poverty is not a natural disaster, it is disaster of human will — and the tragedy of the Haiti flood belongs to the realm of politics, not meteorology.

The other two ways in which this disaster is partly man-made both have to do with the way the US is responding to the crisis. First, the US isn't dedicating enough of its resources — money, food, equipment, personnel — to aid the rescue and relief effort. The death toll of 2,600 is larger than that of September 11 — and it's actually proportionally much larger, considering that the population of Haiti is smaller than that of New York City. The Haitians need more doctors, medical supplies, food and helicopters — and they need it now.

A third action that the US must take in response to the disaster is to finally open up its borders a bit. There are two main criteria for allowing foreigners to enter the US under "temporary protected status" — these are when they face "a substantial but temporary disruption of living conditions'' and when "there is an ongoing armed conflict...and, due to that conflict, return of nationals of that state would pose a serious threat to personal safety." In light of the widespread disaster that has gripped the country, it seems fairly obvious that both criteria apply here and yet Haitian boat people are turned away daily.

If an influx of Haitian refugees to Florida is too politically costly for Bush, then he should send them to non-swing states. How about Texas? Or Massachusetts? Who knows, maybe he'll even win a few votes. In any case, a man who prides himself on speaking a moral language of politics and who has spoken of Jesus as his political role model ought to ask himself what the morally correct decision is in this case. What would Jesus do in Haiti?

Although the US must act in response to this crisis, its real responsibility lies in helping Haiti rebuild in such a way as to avoid these types of disasters in the future. This means helping Haitians build sturdy homes in safe areas, addressing the deforestation crisis, and confronting the causes of poverty. This is no small order but it must be done or more lives will be lost. A stable and healthy Haiti is in the interests of the United States and even if it might be hard to achieve, it is still probably more within reach than a stable and healthy Iraq. Were President Bush to make rebuilding Haiti a priority, he might have at least one foreign policy success to point to once his days are done.

About the Author

Avi Steinberg is a freelance writer living in Boston. After studying American foreign policy at Harvard, he received a fellowship in 2002-3 to live in Jerusalem and study international conflict. He is on staff at Transition Magazine.
http://www.africana.com/articles/daily/bw20040616haiti.asp

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