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January 15th, 2010
01:01 PM ET

Haiti and the aid puzzle

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/WORLD/americas/01/14/haiti.aid.hurdles/smlvid.haiti.stretcher.afp.gi.jpg width=300 height=169]

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

When the earth shook in Haiti, in addition to bringing down thousands of buildings and taking countless lives, it also brought up an old issue for American politicians. How much aid should they, can they, and will they send?

In the rush of early emotion, the answer seems simple: As much as is takes. But the U.S. government has grappled with this question since it first sent disaster assistance overseas after an earthquake hit Venezuela in 1812. And there are no easy answers. A study by the National Research Council decades ago defined many of the complex and competing interests, and there has been precious little change since.

President Obama, for example, must show enough interest, and send enough early aid to fulfill the long-standing American tradition of reaching out to others in distress. But simultaneously, political leaders have to recognize that domestic needs will soon enough come into play, especially in a tough economy like the one we face now. As weeks and months pass, voters who initially supported the relief will likely start grumbling about all the money and attention going to another land.

Not all foreign disasters are equal. If the afflicted country has a great many former residents living in the United States, history has shown they will create political and social pressure to keep aid flowing. If the media or celebrity activists take up a cause, that too can keep the pipeline full.

But even then, politicians tread a thin line between disaster aid and general aid. Haiti was deeply impoverished before the quake, and even the best-intentioned leader will have to make difficult calls once the emergency phase passes. Do you rebuild the country to its pre-quake level or to something better? And how can that be accomplished without stepping on the autonomy of the local government; or, just as bad, letting one political faction there co-opt the aid as its own invention, and doling it out as political patronage?

Oddly enough, a former president, Bill Clinton, may have delivered the most important message so far, when he appealed to private citizens to do all they can to help Haiti; through donations and sustained interest. And he may have also quietly reminded Americans of something many well-intentioned presidents have found out before: Foreign disaster aid is essential, decent…and a delicate balance.

Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.


Filed under: Haiti Earthquake • Opinion • Raw Politics
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Nat Fernandez

    I wanted to know why the US is not using the four airports in Puerto Rico to unload the aid and Also the airplanes can be refueled. The people in puerto Rico, the goverment,incluging Governor Fortuno and the national Guard and thousands of doctors, surgeons, orthopedic surgeons and many EMT's are ready to help. The island of Puerto Rico is closer and many US citizen that are still in Haiti can be brougt to the island... we are just waiting and wanting and to help.

    January 15, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
  2. lee foley

    Anderson C, All cruise Lines that make most of their money off the islands should band together and send empty ships down there, with doctosr and medications and use themas floatingr hospital sand hotels these people help Now. Call them on this all the cruise lines should help Now. Thanks, Anderson for your humane reporting, be strong and know millions on people are watching and hoping you can do more. Lee Foley san pedro ca

    January 15, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
  3. ken

    if supplies cant land in haiti why not ask castro on all major news agencies to let us planes land in cuba & ferry supplies to port au prince on uss vincent. if castro says no..us is hero, castro is goat and all is same for hatians. if he says yes, us is hero, castro is hero and hatians win and relations with cuba may thaw. foot of cuba is close to haiti. and state department wins.

    January 15, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
  4. martha Hoffman

    I believe if the Haitian men were given food and water they would then be able to work and help clear the docks and streets in PaP. Haitians are more than willing to work but I am sure they would appreciate food/water to be able to do that.
    The work might be an answer to keeping them busy – and they are wonderfull people who would work hard if given instruction.
    Just a thought....

    January 15, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  5. Mariel Perez

    These people are hurting, they need water, food and first aid supplies. Why can't they start dropping supplies by helicopters. They don't necessarily need to land, just fly over clinics and hospitals and start dropping supplies. These people will not be patient much longer. God Bless all those in Haiti and I pray that soon there will be some help. Those people cannot go another night without these basic supplies.

    January 15, 2010 at 12:22 pm |
  6. John Seddon

    Anderson,

    Keep up the good work you are doing in Haiti. You are a first Class Reporter......in my book.We need more like you !

    January 15, 2010 at 12:05 pm |