At Oxfam, we can’t help but think of the tsunami. When a monumental catastrophe strikes out of the blue, leveling a city and killing unbearable numbers of people, we remember the aftermath of the great waves of 2004.
The two disasters weren’t much alike, of course. The tsunami surged across thousands of miles of coastline in 14 countries, killing 230,000 people. Its breadth was staggering, but the water from the waves didn’t penetrate far, so inland communities were able to respond quickly with assistance. Haiti, in losing its capital city and having few inland resources to call on, may be at risk for deeper impacts than any country caught in the path of the tsunami.
But here is something these disasters had in common: not only were poor people hit hard in both Haiti and Asia, but what put them in harm’s way was poverty itself.
The fishing villages of India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia hugged the shore so closely that it put their people at risk – because if you’re a poor fishing family and you hope to eke out an income, this is where you’ll do it best.
In Haiti – the poorest country in the western hemisphere – most people live in housing that hasn’t a chance against a powerful earthquake. And the country’s weak system of roads, water supply, airports, and hospitals is making the relief effort painfully slow.
But perhaps the likeness won’t end there.
Donors gave so generously after the tsunami that aid providers around the world finally had enough funds to help communities stricken by an emergency take big steps out of poverty.
In the years after the disaster, I had a chance to see this for myself while I worked on Oxfam’s tsunami research program. I traveled up and down the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, and everywhere I went, tsunami survivors proudly showed me through the sturdy, breezy, sunlit houses that Oxfam and other aid agencies had built to replace the windowless mud huts they had lost to the waves. They talked about how much better the schools are now, and how much safer the drinking water is. But most of all, the women talked about themselves. After the tsunami, they had a chance to learn about their rights, develop new skills, and become breadwinners for their families and leaders in their homes and communities. Read about seven women who led their community out of deepest poverty. The work of the aid community, they told me, had transformed their lives as women.
There is no way to make up for the human losses that Haitians are suffering now. The grief of losing many friends and relatives at once is unimaginable to most of us. But there is a way that, over the next few years, Oxfam’s response to this emergency can help many of the poorest and most vulnerable people who lived through this earthquake lift themselves out of poverty.
We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.
Please give generously to the Haiti Earthquake Response Fund.