The catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January 2010 has levelled Port-au-Prince, inflicting enormous pain in the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is a terrible blow to the cause of development in the region, in a country that has inspired unusual collective action among its Latin American neighbours. This collective action must be mobilised to aid Haiti in its rebuilding, recovery and future development.
An OECD Development Centre Policy Brief argues that “hazards” -- drought, earthquakes, epidemics, floods, windstorms -- are naturally occurring, but that “disasters” are not. It’s unfavourable conditions–like irregular urban settlements, environmental degradation and weak regulatory practices–that render a society more vulnerable and less resilient to shocks. Unfortunately, then, Haiti was not only exposed to the risk of earthquake (a geophysical fact), it was vulnerable to a disaster (a social fact). In an important sense, the deadly earthquake in Haiti is a development issue.
We applaud in particular the efforts of those countries -- many of them Latin American -- that have played a leading role in the United Nations' stabilisation mission (MINUSTAH) since 2004. Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile are prominently represented among the Latin American countries working together to stabilise Haiti -- and have likewise shared in the fearsome human toll of the earthquake. International collective action today can help ensure that Haiti's recovery is more resilient, and that the nation's vulnerability to shocks in the future is dramatically reduced.
There is a bitter parallel between the Haitian earthquake to the experience of many Latin American and Caribbean countries in the global financial crisis. The paradox of the crisis is that many countries in the region, even as they became more exposed to external economic shocks -- through greater openness to global trade and capital flows -- they also built up mechanisms of resilience (via reasonable fiscal and monetary policies) to such shocks. As a result, many Latin American countries were less vulnerable to the financial shock than in past crises. Haiti cannot do anything to reduce its exposure to natural hazards; but together we can work so that its vulnerability is reduced and its resilience increased.