Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Comparing Haiti and Chile: 9.0 on the Poverty Scale

By Richard Stearns, Special to the Seattle Times

THE earthquake that struck Chile early Saturday morning was 500 times more powerful than the one that ravaged Haiti less than seven weeks earlier. Yet the difference in death tolls and damage is even more striking: More than 200,000 Haitians perished in a matter of minutes, while the body count in Chile likely will not exceed 1,000.

Many people are wondering why.

Numerous scientists have been interviewed in recent days laboring to explain “subduction zones” and “tectonic plates.” But in a commentary for CNN, Dr. Colin Stark of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University demonstrated he grasps another, more significant reason for the shocking number of deaths in Haiti.

“Poverty is what ultimately kills most people during an earthquake,” he writes. “Poverty means that little or no evaluation is made of seismic risk in constructing buildings and no zoning takes place. It means that building codes are not written, and even if they do exist they are difficult, or impossible, to enforce … Haiti is a tragic illustration of this.”

On Jan. 12 Haiti had few government safety nets for the poor, a substandard health-care system in most of its communities, and a nearly nonfunctioning economy.

More than half the population in Haiti lives on less than $1 a day; the average annual income among Haitians is $1,300. The desperation just to survive day-to-day means Haitians have been forced to cope by:

• Stripping bare many of the nation’s trees to use the wood to make charcoal, and as a result, heavy rains or full-blown hurricanes cause mudslides and kill more Haitians than they should;

• Scavenging for food with little understanding of the implications of poor nutrition on the growth and development of infants and children. As a result, nearly one-quarter of Haitian children suffer from malnutrition, which can cause permanent physical and brain damage, especially in children under 2.

• Building homes from wood, scrap metal, or other materials they can salvage, without understanding the implications — until an earthquake levels their residences — that poor people can’t afford to “build to code.”

And, regrettably, only half of Haitians over the age of 15 can read and write, two-thirds of Haitian children attend primary school, and less than 30 percent reach the sixth grade.

The result is that countries like Haiti are more vulnerable to all forms of natural disaster, including hurricanes, floods, pandemics, famines and earthquakes.

In stark contrast, Chile has a literacy rate greater than 95 percent among its residents over age 15. Boys and girls, on average, are in school 14 years. In addition, only 2 percent of Chile’s people are living on less than $2 a day; the average Chilean earns nearly $15,000 annually.

Moreover, in Chile, electricity has already been restored to some parts of the country. Government authorities are assessing damage and soon will begin rebuilding. Police have cordoned off rubble for clearing, and, businesses are reopening. Chile’s Public Works Minister estimates the government’s response will take months; in Haiti, it likely will take years.

Both earthquakes have brought immeasurable tragedy in peoples’ personal lives. I visited Port-au-Prince a few days following the earthquake, and met many individuals whose lives were changed forever. The stench of death was as pervasive as the concrete dust still settling among the open encampments of people whose homes either were destroyed or unstable.

I left four days later with a mixture of sadness and anger, the latter because most of the deaths would have been prevented — if Haiti hadn’t been so very poor.

In the aftermath of these tragedies, Chile will need support, but Haiti will need intensive investment, not for months, but years. Years of economic development, years of building and staffing clinics and schools, years of enforcing the rule of law and good governance. And with Haiti’s renewal and revival, I’m sure effective building codes will follow.

Bellevue resident Richard Stearns is president and CEO of the U.S. offices of World Vision, the international Christian humanitarian organization, based in Federal Way.

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