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I got to see NYC before the earthquake.

MONTREAL – Why do we care so much about Haiti?

Compassion, empathy, a rich land’s guilt when confronted with unspeakable horrors in a place that has nothing.

Proximity, political expediency for a Parliament about to go on a dubious furlough, fear of failure in the long shadows of the 2004 (no jobs) Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

There’s a phrase in Créole for the outpouring of goodness, the near-spontaneous “We are the World” response, to the crisis in Haiti.

Tout moun se moun, roughly translated, means “everybody is a person,” a human being worthy of love, respect and a hand in need.

So long as you do the right thing, does it matter if your motives aren’t entirely pure? Maybe even, in the case of governments and politicians, just the tiniest bit self-serving or opportunistic?

There would never have been a good time for the earthquake that totalled Port-au-Prince last week, leaving upwards of 200,000 people dead and three million Haitians without homes, food, electricity or clean water, without work or an operational government or personal security.

It was, by every definition, a catastrophe beyond imagining in a country that has long ranked among the poorest on the planet, an island nation battered by every manner of natural and man-made calamity – hurricanes, landslides, deforestation, HIV/AIDS, military coups, political corruption and a crippling debt-load that began with a bloody war of emancipation 200 years ago.

In the days – hours, really – after the 7.0 tremor hit at 16:53 p.m., Jan. 12, the world responded with speed and extraordinary generosity. A rough estimate late this week put the tally for governmental, corporate and private gifts at $1 billion U.S. Countries sent cash, troops and medical support, showing their hearts are in the right place, even if troubling glitches in coordination left such basics as food, water and painkillers stalled on the airport tarmac instead of where they are most needed. The World Food Program sent ready-to-eat meals, multinational corporations reached into the vault and elementary school children emptied their piggy banks.

It appears everyone from departing Montreal Canadiens’ tough guy Georges Laraque to George Clooney and George W. Bush has been thunderstruck by the extent of the damage. Moved to act, we have done so, more or less altruistically – like the Montreal radio station that raised $128,000 by offering listeners who donate $10 or more to UNICEF’s Haiti relief fund chances to win a winter getaway to a luxury resort in the Bahamas.

Much has been made, and rightly so, of the role that social media like Twitter, Facebook and text messaging have played in the Haitian disaster, both in helping to find people trapped in the wreckage and in providing a new platform where news can spread, and morph into consolation, both personal and financial.

“Social networking helped (Barack) Obama get elected president of the United States and now it is helping to raise money for the victims of Haiti,” said Shirley Steinberg, a professor and media analyst at McGill University who credits Facebook and other Internet resources with giving a voice to those who once felt powerless in the wake of global calamities.

“Social networking means that you and me, who are nobodies, are able to build communities and act. So we see artists who are raising money on a social networking site by organizing events and concerts through the weekend.”

New fundraising strategies like Mobile Giving Foundation and Network for Good encourage “micro-giving,” prodding people who had never before given to a relief effort to donate as little as $5 by text messaging or hitting the send button on their computers. In a rare instance of magnanimity, mobile phone providers and credit card companies have waived or lowered fees for gifts to the likes of UNICEF and the Red Cross.

By mid-week, the Canadian Red Cross had received more than $40 million dollars, including $32.9 million from individuals and $8 million from businesses.

Canadians had given at least $10 million more to other charities involved in Haitian relief efforts, including UNICEF, Oxfam, World Vision, CARE, and the Salvation Army – with Ottawa pledging to match private gifts up to a total of $50 million – in addition to the $60 million Canada has promised toward United Nations programs to feed and rebuild basic services in Haiti over the coming months.

The American Red Cross said two out of three donations to its Haiti fund had been made online, with roughly $500,000 raised during ad campaigns during weekend National Football League broadcasts. In Britain, messages sent through Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites accounted for at least a third of the more than $35 million raised by the Red Cross in the first days after the earthquake.

Pioneering media guru Marshall McLuhan would say the medium is the message. The convenience and immediacy of text messaging and social networking certainly remove the obstacles and excuses of writing a cheque, finding an envelope and a stamp and remembering to put the thing in the mail. But that’s not enough to explain the rapidity and scale with which the world has reacted to the Haitian disaster.

“Traditional media led the way and social networking filled in the cracks,” said Michael Hoechsmann, who teaches media and technology in McGill University’s department of integrated studies in education. Hoechsmann argues mainstream media played a bigger role in getting the word out, letting people know what had happened, while social media offered opportunities for individuals to get involved in “the how” of relief and recovery.

“I received a Facebook message from a friend and even though I saw it had been sent to 20 people, I still felt personally involved. It’s a way of personalizing the story by allowing friends and colleagues to distribute information and share their feelings and views. One broadcasts, the other narrowcasts.”

Hoechsmann said social networks and technologies, which were only emerging when the tsunami occurred, serve as a template for fundraising on a global scale and coordination by traditional media, governments and non-governmental agencies trying to help Haiti.



HAITI HIT A RAW NERVE

Proximity, timing and extraordinary need help explain why Haiti hit a raw nerve. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck on Boxing Day on the other side of the world. The tidal wave struck a ribbon of far-flung, largely rural communities. It levelled communities and killed more than 200,000 people in 14 countries, but left the structure of governments and their institutions largely intact.

Port-au-Prince, on the other hand, is a densely-populated capital city with weak construction and sprawling slums in the poorest country in our hemisphere. It is located on the western half of a sun-baked Caribbean island many Quebecers know best for the resorts and beaches of the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

“This is a country where there are no government agencies that work,” said Carolyn Fick, a Concordia University history professor and author of The Making of Haiti.

“The justice system, the police force, infrastructures, education, even at the best of times they exist in a fragmentary way. Haiti is a fragmentary state.”

“A historic disaster,” said Elizabeth Byrs of the United Nations, which has confirmed 61 of its staff members in Haiti are dead and 180 missing.

“We have never been confronted with such a disaster in UN memory. It is like no other.”

“Because of the scale and shallowness of the earthquake in such a densely-populated area, impact was worse than the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It’s difficult to accept the gravity, the enormity of this disaster, for people without resources,” said Fick, whose 1990 book examines the revolt by slaves in the late 1700s that led to independence and paved the way for the abolition of slavery elsewhere half a century later.



VIBRANT EX-PATRIATE COMMUNITIES

Decades of political upheaval have forced thousands of Haitians to seek shelter abroad, spawning large, vibrant ex-patriate communities in Montreal and such U.S. cities as New York, Boston and Miami.

“Here in Canada, and especially Quebec, there have been close ties to Haiti dating back to the 1940s, when missionaries went there to set up schools and hospitals,” said Fick, who is currently involved in an oral history project interviewing Haitian Montrealers who fled the Duvalier regime.

Fick says most Haitian Montrealers – estimated at between 100,000 and 140,000 – would have relatives in Haiti. “With every political crisis, there has been a wave of Haitian immigration. They have integrated very well, partly because of language, but also because there were strong ties between Haiti and Quebec.”



OBAMA SHOWS LEADERSHIP

The Haitian earthquake occurred in the dead of January, little more than a week before Barack Obama’s first anniversary in office amid fierce criticism of his health care plan and disappointment with his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. Showing leadership in Haiti – by sending 16,000 soldiers and Marine – could be seen as both the moral and the political-savvy thing to do, at least in the short-term. A poll conducted by CBS News in the days immediately after the earthquake showed the vast majority of Americans of all political stripes endorsed the president’s decision to help Haiti.

For Obama, the quick response could stave off charges of the Katrina-style hand-wringing which helped to bury the Bush administration after its slow and thoughtless reaction to the hurricane which ravaged New Orleans. And vows to rebuild Port-au-Prince could also be seen as strategic efforts to discourage desperate Haitians from attempting to follow the lead of earlier generations of refugees and set sail for Miami.

Harper, meanwhile, needed to appear decisive, especially with contentious plans afoot to prorogue Parliament.

“I’d love to believe this outpouring for Haiti is because we all care about each other, but I’m cynical and have to say it’s probably a combination of guilt and learning from bad example,” said Steinberg.“So when Prime Minister Stephen Harper says that he’s not waiting because you don’t need permission to do the right thing, what he’s really saying is that I’m not George Bush and I don’t want this to be another Katrina.”

“Everyone in the world is making sure they aren’t seen as a lousy leader. At the government level, we don’t want to look like idiots. (They) are politicians first, citizens of the world second.”



THERE IS A STORY NOT BEING HEARD

“To be cynical, there hasn’t been an international crisis of this magnitude in a while, so there has been space in the news cycle for it,” said Pierre Minn, a doctoral candidate at McGill University who has spent two years in Haiti, most recently doing field work on international medical aid in the north shore city of Cap Haïtien.

“Usually, my friends in Haiti complain that people tend to make the situation there worse than it is. In this case, they say it is worse than can truly be conveyed,” said Minn.

As someone with friends and contacts outside Port-au-Prince, Minn believes a key part of the earthquake relief story is not being heard – that of Haitian families, church groups and community organizations that have opened their doors to their countrymen.

“They are the ones who will be taking in relatives and adopting orphaned children. It’s not just the helpful hand of the benevolent foreigners. It is frustrating for Haitians to be seen as passive recipients of foreign aid, as though they are doing nothing for themselves.”

That said, he agrees that relief and recovery are essential – and soon – if Haiti has any chance to survive this colossal set back. “Cynically, we know that Haiti is not going to be in the news for long, so we need to get results before the world’s attention goes to something else.”

One key, said Minn, must be a critical review of economic and trade policies which he argues have undermined Haiti’s efforts to rebuild.

“Why is it cheaper for Haitians to buy American rice than Haitian rice? And the same is true for chicken, and corn. One of the reasons why so many people left the land and moved to Port-au-Prince is because they are unable to sell their products,” Minn said. “Tariff agreements and subsidies are very complicated. It’s much easier for people to write a cheque than to look at the impact of those policies.”



NEEDS ARE SIMPLE AS LIFE ITSELF

“I’d hate to think people were motivated by guilt,” said Fick, who prefers to think there is a profound recognition of Haiti’s plight and the tremendous resilience of her people. “I’m not sure how to put this without it sounding naive, but there is a kindness and genuineness to Haitians, a stoicism in the face of disaster and yet, an openness to help others.”

Haiti’s immediate needs are as simple as life itself – medical aid, food, water, and shelter. Only once those essentials are in place can officials start to look at the bigger picture – decent roads, reliable utilities, a functioning government. “Haiti must be rebuilt from bottom to top,” Fick said, with solutions that make sense to Haiti, not necessarily to rich countries like Canada, France and the United States.

“Haiti has been struggling ever since independence,” said Fick. Like Minn, she cites economic hardships dating back to the time Haiti fought for its freedom from France, compounded by natural disasters and the misdeeds of government elites, who lined their own pockets instead of looking out for the people.

“Haiti has been reliant on foreign aid for a long time, and it will likely be so for a long time to come.”

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