Earthquakes don’t have to be this devastating

Underdevelopment and lack of economic growth made the Haitian earthquake far worse than it might have been.

Rob Killick

Topics Politics

The dreadful events in Haiti are the product of an unavoidable natural event. Earthquakes are not something that can be prevented. But what is preventable is the huge impact they can have on the people affected by them.

The earthquake in Haiti had a magnitude of 7 on the Richter scale and the devastation and loss of life are enormous. However, two similar-sized earthquakes in California within the past 30 years had the following effects:

‘The last major earthquake in the state occurred in the Northridge section of Los Angeles in 1994. The magnitude 6.7 earthquake damaged freeways, killed at least 70 people and did $20 million in damage. On the evening of 17 October 1989, a 6.9 magnitude quake hit the San Francisco and Monterey Bay regions. The 10-15 second tremor left 63 dead, more than 3,700 injured and thousands homeless.’

Bad as these effects were, there is no comparison with the damage currently being inflicted on Haitians. The reason for this differential impact is very simple. California is a wealthy, advanced state which has invested huge amounts of money in earthquake-proofing buildings, bridges and public spaces. Haiti is a wretchedly impoverished country which has invested next to nothing.

Reaction to the earthquake in the West has focused on the need for aid, both as a short-term solution and a longer-term solution to the problems of Haitian society. However well-intentioned this may be – and emergency aid is certainly required as soon as possible – nothing short of a major transformation of the economy of poor countries such as Haiti can prevent natural disasters of this type from creating disproportionate suffering.

The depth of the problems facing Haiti is fully revealed by the inability of aid donors to reach those who need help. As Frank Furedi argues on spiked today, this is mainly a consequence of today’s culture of risk-aversion, in which Haitians tend to be seen as a violent, unpredictable threat to Western rescuers (see To rescue Haitians, we need to take risks). And there is also the serious problem of a lack of infrastructure: Haiti has only one tiny airport which has meant that aid by air has had to be turned away. Its port, unprotected from the effects of earthquake, is blocked, making shipping aid in impossible. Its infrastructure is primitive and its social services inadequate. Helping the injured and homeless is essential right now, but it can only have a very temporary positive impact on the lives of the Haitians.

The plight of Haiti should be remembered by those who advocate slowing down global economic growth or making it more ‘sustainable’. Haitians can only ever look forward to relief from poverty when growth in the global economy has enabled poor countries to develop. Many of Haiti’s problems originated from its past as a French colony. Like many Third World countries its economy has been distorted and exploited by more powerful Western countries over the centuries. This imbalance of power can only ever be addressed through economic development, rising living standards and concomitant social and political progress.

The clear lesson of Haiti, and the many other poor regions unnecessarily afflicted by natural disasters, is that we should reject calls for limits on global economic growth. We in the West cannot in all conscience refuse the poor of the undeveloped world the same rights to a decent life that we enjoy.

Rob Killick is CEO of cScape. Read Rob’s blog, UK after the recession.

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Topics Politics


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