Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Lessons From Haiti And Chile

Richard S. Olson, Forbes

As Haiti and Chile move from disaster response to recovery–and after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake shook northern Mexico and southern California Sunday–it is time to step back and extract larger lessons from the quakes in Haiti and Chile.

The first lesson is that Haiti and Chile are worlds apart. In its 2009 Human Development Index, the U.N. ranked Haiti No. 149 out of 182 countries, the worst in the Western Hemisphere; Chile was No. 44, bested in the Western Hemisphere only by Canada (No. 4), the U.S. (No. 13), and Barbados (No. 37). In its 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranked Haiti No. 168 out of 180 countries; Chile was No. 25, bested in the Western Hemisphere only by Canada (No. 8), the U.S. (No. 19), Barbados (No. 20) and Saint Lucia (No. 22). Finally, in its Failed State Index, the Fund for Peace ranked Haiti No.12 (in this case a low number isn’t good) out of 177 countries, the only Western Hemisphere country placing in the “alert” (the worst) category–before the earthquake; Chile was No. 155 in the world, third in the Western Hemisphere only to the U.S. at No. 159 and Canada at No. 166.

The point of these dry but telling statistics is that Chile is no longer a Third World country but, in many ways, already First World. For its part, Haiti was not a Third World country even before the Jan. 12 earthquake; it was a type of “Fourth World”–desperately poor and unsustainable on its own. This fundamental difference in “Worlds” goes a long way toward explaining why Haiti would have at least 200,000 people killed in a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, while Chile appears to have lost fewer than 500 killed in a magnitude 8.8.

The second lesson derives from the first: Development levels matter, but so do governance capabilities, because together they determine vulnerabilities. Chile enjoyed not only economic development in recent decades, but also an obvious adherence to strict seismic building codes. While land use regulation, especially in tsunami-prone areas, appears more suspect (as does its tsunami warning and alert system), Chile can take pride in much of its building stock. The cautionary tale here, however, is that the Chile earthquake’s epicenter was fully 200 miles from the capital, Santiago. Sterner national tests for Chile likely await because great natural hazard events reveal, or “find” in a sense, every structural, land use and human vulnerability, every Third World vestige, in an affected area–as the U.S. learned in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina.

Haiti is tragically instructive as the polar opposite case to Chile. With no real building codes, land use at best an unplanned hodgepodge and a terribly fragile infrastructure, the capital Port-au-Prince was deadly vulnerable on Jan. 12 because it had urbanized, well, insanely. In 1982 Port-au-Prince had a population of less than 800,000. On the day of the earthquake it had a population of at least 2.5 million, probably more. Accommodating this growth–one could hardly call it development–led to one of the riskiest building stocks in the region, and then to outright national catastrophe. As we look back at the Haiti catastrophe and the Chile disaster, governance capabilities in regulating construction and land use obviously matter, which lead to my third lesson: “Clocks.”

In so many areas of our increasingly frantic world, we have totally lost sight of what might be called the “Disaster Clock,” which runs slowly but inexorably and is calibrated in century swatches. Our leaders, however, seem to run much more on a “Political Clock,” which is all about short-term advantage and sees even 10 years ahead as “way out there.” The problem is that eventually the Disaster Clock catches up with the Political Clock and turns our mindlessly located and constructed vulnerabilities into massive human losses. If this sounds like hyperbole, bear in mind that more than 600,000 people have died in just five natural events in the last nine years: the Gujarat earthquake, the Asian tsunami, Cyclone Nargis, the Sichuan earthquake and now Haiti. Indeed, the 21st century is shaping up to be when we, or more precisely our children and grandchildren, pay the price for the 20th century’s short-sighted growth and development mania–as if long-term risk and the slow but sure Disaster Clock did not exist.

So what is to be done? Three things:

First, we are not going to unmake the last 50 years, so we simply have to prepare–in effect, gird ourselves psychologically and emotionally–for further tremendous losses where the word “catastrophe,” not just disaster, will be used more frequently. That is, the 21st century gives every indication of not being anything like the 20th.

Second, the international community can no longer pretend that effective and enforced land use and building regulation are “up to local authorities.” As we have just witnessed, they matter tremendously, and if national and local authorities won’t take those intertwined issues seriously, then the international community has to step up the pressure for, and even directly fund or subsidize, those capabilities. For a relative upfront pre-event pittance, the later savings in response and recovery costs would be huge.


Third, we have to adjust, or force the adjustment of, the Political Clock to the Disaster Clock. That is, our political and economic elites must think more long term in everything they do, and we as citizens will have to understand and appreciate that change–and hold them suitably accountable. One way to bring that change home is to employ the “Grandchild Test” for every development, land use, design and construction decision: Do we want our grandchildren–not us or even our children (that is too short term)–working, studying, living, shopping or playing in that particular place and in that particular structure when an extreme event occurs? If the answer is yes, then develop and build; if the answer is no, then step back and rethink the entire project from the vulnerability and Disaster Clock perspective.

Richard S. Olson, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations and the project director for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas at Florida International University. He has been involved in disaster field research, evaluation and at times operational response in more than a dozen major events.

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