The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

I Feel The Earth Move

Old joke time. Did you hear about the gas explosion in (insert name of rubbish town here)? It caused a million pounds worth of improvements.

That joke came to mind while watching the footage of the Haiti earthquake. Because, well, the place looked like an earthquake had just hit it before the earthquake hit. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world (more-or-less the poorest outside Africa) and has little hope of improvement without outside intervention; even before the disaster, it was reliant on foreign aid. I’ve been reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse, where it’s used as a case study of a society in irreversible decline; this is down to a combination of things, including weak government, over-population, deforestation, and lukewarm relations with its slightly-more-prosperous neighbour, the Dominican Republic; where the Dominican Republic has protected forest (which in turn means the rainfall is captured as groundwater before collecting into rivers, meaning much of the country’s power is hydroelectric), Haiti has subsistence farming and what remaining forests there are being chopped down for charcoal. Haiti is what happens when a country is asset-stripped and there is nothing left.

You might think I’m being a bit hard on the country. After all, not only are they one of the poorest countries in the world, they’ve just had an earthquake and on top of that Simon Cowell has organised a charity single on their behalf. Haven’t they suffered enough?

But my point is this. I’m not knocking the motives behind the fundraising effort, it’s admirable and selfless and without an ounce of cynicism. It’s just that this is a great opportunity to do more, to really change Haiti’s fortunes, for something good to come out of the disaster and put the whole country on the path to recovery.

But the problem is, it never quite works out like that. Despite all the fundraising and good intentions over the past two decades, Ethiopia remains one of the very poorest countries in the world, due largely to its population growth outstripping its resources (the poorest counties tend to have the highest population growth rates, which is what keeps them poor – it’s Malthus in action). Where will Haiti be in five years time? It’s great that people care when an earthquake hits, but will they still care next year, when the next disaster is making headlines? The poverty of Haiti, and other countries, is treated like a fact of life; somebody else’s problem, a problem too big to be solved, and however sympathetic we may be, there’s the nagging doubt that it’s a problem which is partially self-inflicted.

You can only do so much, but in order to make a difference, you need to do so much more; the introduction of democracy is a step in the right direction, but not a panacea, as you also need cultural changes, the most important of all being sexual equality, as the best way to control a country’s population is to stop treating half its population as baby-making machines.

Anyway, waffling on. Don’t know what my point is. Probably something about how charity solves nothing because it’s all about people giving ‘the least they can afford’ when what you need is the government making sure people give the most they can afford (and voters supporting governments that increase foreign aid, such as the current Labour administration, which has doubled it, and led the campaign to cancel the debts of the poorest nations – doing far more good, and making far more of a difference, than any feelgood TV telethon or charity record).