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It’s hard to see how the Haitian earthquake could be worse–a powerful quake, close to the surface, striking right in a densely populated area. But this is even harsher than what you might think: I did some freelance aid work in India after the 2004 tsunami, and the devastation was very much proportional to the poverty of the area before the wave hit. We (me and some Indians I fell in with) were giving aid in Nagapattinam, in Tamil Nadu (a backward state by Indian standards), and when we were done for the day we would drive up to Karaikal, in Pondicherry state, which is far better off and where the damage was already fixed up and the restaurants were open.

Point being, the devastation in Haiti will be magnified by the fact that Haiti is badly off even by the standards of the third world. Haiti has cut down its forests (to the point that you can see the border on a satellite picture–green on the Dominican side, brown on the Haitian side), and it’s been so poor for so long that society has started to break down; here’s Yolette Etienne, an aid worker, quoted in the book Planet of Slums:

Now everything is for sale. The woman used to receive you with hospitality, give you coffee, share all that she had in her home. I could go get a plate of food at a neighbor’s house; a child could get a coconut at her godmother’s, two mangoes at another aunt’s. But these acts of solidarity are disappearing with the growth of poverty. Now when you arrive somewhere, either the woman offers to sell you a cup of coffee or she has no coffee at all. The tradition of mutual giving that allowed us to help each other and survive—this is all being lost.

And now this.

What happens when a disaster strikes a place where “the tradition of mutual giving” is gone? Will Haitians pull together? Will the country simply fall apart?

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