Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tragedy presents rebuilding opportunity

I heard an estimate on the news last week that put the losses resulting from the devastating earthquakes in Haiti at over $1 billion, and immediately began to wonder how anyone could expect to accurately tabulate what was truly destroyed.

Last Sunday, during a story airing on "60 Minutes," video showed what appeared to be endless piles of bodies on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Heavy equipment was being used to scoop up bodies, a pile at a time, and dump them into huge tractor trailers to be transported to communal graves. They were literally disposing of bodies en masse because the sea of corpses that lined the streets posed a serious threat to public health.

Still, how do you put a price on such a tremendous loss of life? By Jan. 23, 11 days after the first earthquake struck, Haiti authorities estimated that 150,000 people had been buried. Based on evidence of the mass burials, it's safe to assume that thousands of bodies were put into the ground without being identified, which compounds the loss. I'm not sure how they will ever unravel this mess.

I have been pleased with the outpouring of support I have seen, and I am intrigued with the possibility of leveraging technology to increase giving. An article in today's New York Times said that "texters have pledged $22 million to the Red Cross, so far. Now that texting has proven an effective tool in disaster relief, I look forward to seeing how that strategy and other technologies will be leveraged to increase support for charitable causes longer-term.

I'm also hoping that the rebuilding strategy in Haiti leans more toward scrapping the old and recreating something innovative, more viable than the country was in its former state. Many economists would argue Haiti was dealing with a disaster long before the two earthquakes struck. I spent considerable time this weekend in a classroom studying economics and social justice around the world and, no surprise, Haiti was included in a number of discussions.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once said that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."Haiti has the world's attention right now and I hope that results in a collaborative effort to rebuild the country in a way that produces more than new buildings to replace the substandard structures that so easily collapsed. That some attention is paid to how to provide opportunity for Haitians that allows them to make progress economically, and to do so in a way that is sustainable.

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