It is Tuesday, but schools and banks and businesses are closed all across Haiti. Churches are open for memorial services to mark the sixth anniversary of the most deadly natural disaster in the history of the Western Hemisphere, the 2010 earthquake that killed a quarter million Haitians.
As we pause to remember those who were lost — so many mothers and fathers, so many sisters and brothers, so many children suddenly taken in just a few seconds — we honor them, too, by attempting to learn from this event that snatched them from us.
While the quake couldn’t have been prevented, much, if not most of the death could have been easily prevented. The great majority of those who died were crushed under concrete buildings that collapsed almost the instant the ground began to shake. Structural engineers tell us that many of these buildings could have withstood the quake had builders done one simple thing — connected the steel reinforcements in the various sections of each building.
It is a simple step required by building codes everywhere and adds almost no cost to construction. The tallest building in Port-au-Prince, the 12 story Digicel building, endured the quake with only minor damage largely because it was constructed following this principle.
Since the quake, a lot of effort has gone into educating masons in the importance of binding the sections of their buildings into one piece. A great deal of international pressure has also been placed on the Haitian government to adopt and enforce building codes that meet basic standards.
How much difference these efforts are making in building practices now is not entirely clear, but the causes of this faulty construction practice largely persist. Adopting and enforcing building codes is a public interest and an important function of government.
The Haitian state has historically been either autocratic and unaccountable or, more recently, feeble, divided, and ineffectual. This is largely why so many children continue to live in slavery today and why most schools are so weak or non-existent in so many Haitian communities.
Haitians have learned to expect little of their political leaders, and their leaders have often lived down to their expectations. The gap in services has been partially filled by a plethora of international aid agencies and small benevolent initiatives from abroad. While these well-intentioned efforts have filled an immediate need, they have also helped get the Haitian government off the hook. These efforts are also often disjointed, inefficient, and encourage corruption at the local level.
Thankfully, awareness seems to be growing and more and more organizations are seeing the need to use their resources and influence to strengthen leadership and governance and encourage greater accountability and coordination.
Like buildings, societies are very fragile when they are not bound together by principled and capable leadership that is accountable to their people.
The mission of Beyond Borders is focused on movement building precisely because history teaches us that the cohesive principles and shared norms that hold societies together emerge most often from grassroots movements for social justice. These social movements also lead to the development of enduring structures that hold leaders accountable for governing effectively.
As we remember all who were lost this day six years ago, we are grateful for the generosity and service of people like you who support movements for justice and responsive leadership. Along with thousands of local activists and grassroots groups that we have trained, you are helping Haitians to build a society that has the strength to protect the most vulnerable.
With deep gratitude,
Director, Beyond Borders