The outpouring of humanitarian aid from numerous nations for the suffering people of Haiti is truly extraordinary — particularly when set against the shabby record of the past.
After all, in previous centuries the French government invaded Haiti, enslaved its people and, when the Haitians arose and drove out the French, subsequently crippled its economy by foisting a huge reparations burden upon the nation. The American government was not much more generous, for it refused to establish diplomatic relations with Haiti for nearly six decades, imposed a trade embargo upon it, occupied it militarily from 1915 to 1934, backed ruthless dictators, and helped oust democratically-elected governments. Other nations have unclean hands, as well.
Even so, there is something about vast human suffering that sparks generosity in people, that appeals to their better instincts — even, at times, the humane instincts of normally callous, power-wielding government officials.
So why should humanitarian aid be extraordinary? Why not make it routine? Long before the earthquake, Haitians were the poorest people in the hemisphere, suffering from widespread hunger, disease, and illiteracy. Could not the United States — the richest nation in the world with a public whose major anxieties (to judge from the vast attention given to weight loss) seem to result from over-eating — manage to share a bit of its affluence by regularly providing food aid to starving Haitians? And what about building hospitals to provide health care and schools to promote literacy? Such programs would surely be good for Haiti and for numerous other poverty-stricken nations.
Critics of this idea point to overseas aid programs of past decades and ask: Hasn’t this project already been tried? To some degree, it has. But these aid programs usually were tied to America’s Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, and were turned on or off when the competitors found it useful. In this fashion, aid programs were shaped to win support from governments or to secure other objectives on the chessboard of world politics. Such was the fate of the Alliance for Progress. Furthermore, the aid was predominantly military aid, which did little more than encourage Third World military coups or keep tyrants in power. Comparatively little aid went to nutrition, health care, and education.
There were exceptions, of course. The Peace Corps dispatched tens of thousands of American volunteers to economically underdeveloped nations, where they worked ably at a variety of ameliorative projects, usually in education. George McGovern’s Food for Peace program, initiated in the early 1960s, rescued millions of people from starvation. At one point, 20 percent of Indian schoolchildren were fed by it.
In the post-Cold War years, however, major humanitarian aid programs were replaced by loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But these loans, ostensibly designed to foster economic development, were often directed toward integrating recipient nations into trade relationships with multinational corporations, and all too often left such countries impoverished and debt-ridden.
For the most part, U.N. agencies and many private aid organizations (like the American Friends Service Committee, Doctors Without Borders, and the International Red Cross) have taken up the slack in providing food, health care, and education to people in poverty-stricken nations. And despite their very limited resources, they have done a remarkable job of it.
But suppose that the wealthy nations pumped billions of dollars a year into programs for the world’s hungry, sick, and illiterate. And suppose that they did this not on an ad hoc, crisis basis, but as a long-term, routine matter through the United Nations. Isn’t this the ethical thing, the moral thing to do? And wouldn’t they also be creating a reservoir of goodwill that would soften the grievances of the downtrodden, the bitter, and the desperate — indeed, might be more effective in undermining terrorism than the endless, trillion dollar wars that are now being waged?
Perhaps, as Eleanor Roosevelt once urged, it’s time to begin substituting food, health care, and education for warfare and other oppressive programs.
Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).