Saturday, January 16, 2010

Two Thoughts on Haiti

Maggie Koerth-Baker, a recent noteworthy addition to the BoingBoing crew, had one of the best responses to the Pat Robertson's mindless vindictiveness. Summarizing a [London] Times Online story, she wrote:

Haiti was forced to pay France for its freedom. When they couldn't afford the ransom, France (and other countries, including the United States) helpfully offered high-interest loans. By 1900, 80% of Haiti's annual budget went to paying off its "reparation" debt. They didn't make the last payment until 1947. Just 10 years later, dictator Fran├žois Duvalier took over the country and promptly bankrupted it, taking out more high-interest loans to pay for his corrupt lifestyle. The Duvalier family, with the blind-eye financial assistance of Western countries, killed 10s of thousands of Haitians, until the Haitian people overthrew them in 1986. Today, Haiti is still paying off the debt of an oppressive dictator no one would help them get rid of for 30 years.

The rest of the world refuses to forgive this debt.

So, in a way, maybe Robertson is right. Haiti is caught in a deal with the devil, and the devil is us. (emphasis added)
Susan Perry at MinnPost wrote about recent research on human empathy as it does or does not move us to act in response to tragedies like the Haitian earthquake. For instance, one experiment demonstrated that people who saw the face of a single starving child gave twice as much money as people who were given statistics on the magnitude of the problem.

Perry quoted another blogger on the topic: "This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water." Or, I might add, why hundreds of people will want to adopt a single abandoned baby or maliciously injured animal, but those same people don't adopt the many other parentless children or unwanted animals.

Unfortunately, as Perry notes, "The 2006 study made the rather discouraging finding that when people are taught to be aware of their bias toward the identifiable victim over the 'statistical' one, they don’t increase their donations to the statistical victims, but, instead, cut back on their donations to the individual ones." The reasoning (if there is any) might be, No matter how bad something is, there will always a worse disaster, right? So why act now?

What will it take for more knowledge to lead to more giving, rather than less?


Ms Sparrow said...

Let's see--do I have this straight--Haiti has to continue making payments to France while France continues to ignore its debt to the US from WWII?

Charlie Quimby said...

Haiti paid off the original debt, but think of it as a re-fi that will never be paid.