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Learning from the foreshocks of the Haiti disaster

The disaster in Haiti did not occur yesterday.

While the nation's latest tragedy was triggered by yesterday's 7.0 magnitude earthquake, its real roots were not 10 kilometers beneath the earth's surface as seismologists concluded. Rather, they were in two centuries of misfortune that have plagued the country and most heart-breakingly in the particular failures of the international community and the country's leaders to help the country during the most recent decade and half -- a period when real hope backed with real money seemed to bloom and then, just as quickly, fade.

It was the crushing poverty in the hemisphere's poorest nation that resulted in Port-au-Prince being a city of ramshackle homes of unreinforced concrete or worse, shanties assembled of odd-shaped bits of rusty, corrugated metal, scrap wood, cardboard and old packing crates. It was decades of neglect that made rebar an unaffordable luxury for virtually all on the island or that left communications, power and water systems so underdeveloped that even prior to the earthquake they were operating at what even other poor nations would consider crisis levels.

While it would have been impossible to know precisely when an earthquake of this magnitude would hit or that when it did it would hit so close to this hemisphere's most fragile city, it was known that such a calamity was possible, and not only by seismologists. We have watched repeatedly as hurricanes have battered Haiti and left it staggered because just a few hundred miles away from the richest country on earth was one so deprived that it was ill-equipped even for the predictable weather that came with so many autumns.

We knew all this and yet with every failure to act or to follow through on a good intention, we assured yesterday's outcomes.

In all its benighted history, perhaps Haiti's greatest moment of hope since its independence came just a decade and a half ago. Back then, America finally took interest in its near neighbor as a consequence of a political crisis that, thanks in part to our intervention, resulted in the departure of a dictator whose family had oppressed and raped the island and his replacement by a quiet priest who was embraced by many in the United States as our hemisphere's Mandela. As it turned out, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was hardly the saint that Hollywood stars and misty-eyed journalists had seen him to be. 

But we in the Clinton administration did not know that back then -- or at least many did not. We saw his restoration to the country as possibly the latest in the wave of hope-inspiring political upheavals that marked the end of the eighties and the early nineties. We committed thousands of troops and billions of dollars to the country to help give it a new chance. We offered a window of opportunity to tap into real financial resources from us and from the international community. We sent in AID and the Army Corps of Engineers. We trained police and built schools.  

I was given the assignment of helping lead the inter-agency effort tasked with assisting Haiti's economic recovery. We brought a trade mission of business leaders to consider investment opportunities in Haiti ... though there were very few. We tried to identify projects of particular promise...ones that might bring phone service to the 70,000 villages that lacked it or electricity or water to the millions who risked life and limb stealing power from exposed wires or drinking water that was less than pure. 

But we made serious errors. The first was misreading Aristide. This was the result of an intelligence failure as serious as any in the news in the past few decades. Many in our own intel community knew he was a bad guy, affiliated with bad guys, not a good ally. But top policymakers ignored the intel, even firing folks who had the temerity to tell the truth. Later, we made the mistake of demanding Aristide leave at the end of the term of office he had largely not been able to serve due to his exile ... which may have seemed logical at the time but resulted in his effectively become the opposition to his own party from the moment he left office so he would have a chance to run again for office against his own closest political allies a few years hence.

The political turmoil associated with all this left us focused on process and uneasy about fully dispersing the aid that was committed to the country. Further, the country lacked what is commonly called absorptive capacity, the ability to actually take and productively use all we were offering. The bureaucracy was weak. Some was corrupt. Helping Haiti was hard to do.

International interest waned ... although to the credit of the United Nations, they remained engaged in a way that put many of their dedicated workers at great risk yesterday.  But over time, due to our naiveté and the fecklessness of Haitian political leaders the energy behind recovery efforts nonetheless ebbed and with terror and economic crises claiming center stage, the United States lost the political will to assist the struggling country. Good intentions and a pregnant moment were overtaken by events ... and in a way, that's when yesterday's tragedy began. With every dollar withheld, with every program withdrawn, with every aid worker shifted to a different front in a more politically pressing development initiative, somebody's death was foretold.

This is certainly not to lay blame at the feet of those who sought to help but who could not due to shifting political winds. There was real care for Haiti among many of those atop the Clinton team ... beginning with the president himself who remains deeply involved there to this day. Rather, it is to note that the tragedy of the missed opportunity of the '90s seem much more poignant today, almost unbearably so.

Thousands are dead, perhaps many times that. But it is not solely or even, I would argue, primarily due to an act of God. It is due to the callous neglect of neighbors who were content to live with one of the world's poorest countries at the doorstep of the world's richest. (And, it must be said, to the failures of local political leaders.)  It is due to political calculations that resulted in winding down U.S. efforts there and our choice to spend in a couple of weeks in Iraq or Afghanistan what it would have taken to lift this needy neighbor up ... and save countless lives. It is due to the fact that too much of what we spend is for relief rather than for preparedness. In any event, it seems clear that if you leave a ramshackle city of 2 million on a fault line while the knowledge and the means to shore it up exist at your disposal and you are complicit in whatever follows.

The State Department and the White House are in the midst of seriously rethinking how we approach aid and development matters. Haiti should be a case study in how the best of intentions can go awry and of the incalculable costs of letting conflicts and catastrophes set our priorities for us. (The tsunami or regular flooding in places like Bangladesh offer similar examples.) In particular, we need to carefully identify those places internationally that are weakest and most vulnerable and undertake to lead an international initiative to systematically and aggressively invest in crisis prevention...including promulgating international building and other planning standards and helping to provide the financial and technical means to achieve them.

Mundane sounding maybe. But the urgency is clear.  Because Haiti today well illustrates that we can almost always do more to prevent or manage the foreshocks of crises than their aftershocks.

THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images

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