Keeping Haiti on the radar

[Editor’s Note: This OpenForum op-ed was written by Abigail Hook, a Harvard College undergraduate currently volunteering with the FXB Center]

The wealth of global response to Haiti’s January earthquake suggests a tremendous sense of global responsibility for a country whose current death toll is over 200,000. Now that Haiti is on the world’s central radar, how might those involved in rebuilding ensure that Haiti become a lasting center of global responsibility? That is, what’s the relationship between empathy for those affected by disaster and an engagement in transformation?

Certainly Haiti is in desperate need. Yet the discrepancy between the aid provided before 16:23 on Tuesday, January 12, 2010, and the outpouring of funds since then is hardly consistent with the constancy of need that Haiti has expressed for decades. Will Haiti remain a point of awareness for those who feel this recent increase in responsibility, or will it disappear back into the realm of public health experts and anthropology lectures at elite universities as it has so often before?

If a similar event struck even one American city — a hypothetical transformation in 12 hours, in which time all basic health indicators, poverty levels, and living conditions become identical to a portion of the population on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince in 2008 — gross national income per capita would drop US$43,000. Infant mortality would jump 857%. Three percent more people would have AIDS, and TB rates would increase by 1,344 %. Unimaginable? Yet even these changes would fail to convey the years that Haiti has lived as one of the most impoverished nations of the world. A history of discord and poverty has combined to create an unshakable stigma that shrouds any association with the country. With this comes outside prejudice, and from prejudice the extensive debilitating components of social suffering. An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 hitting the country’s capital city is only the tip of the iceberg. Haiti needs the world to extend a hand not only in the coming months, but the coming decades.

Psychological factors make it so easy for us to forget, and sometimes hard to empathize with, suffering. Perhaps by acknowledging our psychological default setting we can improve everyday awareness of global suffering and increase long term action.

There are two primary limitations to comprehending the suffering of others. The first is internal: we are naturally programmed to feel more sympathy towards individuals than groups. Several studies have been done tracking gross donation quantities based on the picture that accompanied a campaign. Those pictures with a single child staring with longing into the camera resulted in considerably more money than the simple addition of one more child to the picture. Human empathy is simply not hardwired to deal with numbers and vast areas of suffering. A death count of 105 seems not much different from 103, yet when a report states that two were dead, we care. Indeed it appears that the fewer the number, the easier it is for onlookers to develop collective empathy. The second limitation is that of language: there are many instances when a limited vocabulary cannot convey the intense emotion that accompanies a tragedy; and increasingly in the medical world, there is an absence of jargon to fully explain the subtleties of suffering. Reading of one’s suffering, in short, can limit our ability to fully comprehend its depths.

Of course, some possess a greater ability to empathize than others, and empathy measures are inevitably generalizations. But taking human nature into account and applying it to a sustainable support strategy could perhaps keep Haiti on the radar. As the world marches on in the coming months and years, it is important that we not only remember Haiti, but also that we actively fight against the natural processes that makes us forget.

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For the empathy study cited see:

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