This time we have to follow through

Natasha Fatah on our short attention span when it comes to crises like Haiti.

Before the earthquake hit, tropical storms, hurricanes and floods had killed thousands of people in Haiti. That is just in the past 10 years, and that's just the environmental devastation alone.

It's adding insult to injury when you start looking at the social and economic problems of being the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, particularly when you consider the country's low literacy rates, chronic mismanagement and the almost everyday shortage of food and clean water.

Haiti has already had its fair — actually unfair — share of suffering. But this earthquake was by far the most devastating thing the country has experienced.

Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands are dead, and even more are sick, suffering, homeless and in need.

Thai mahouts help raised money for Haiti earthquake victims in Bangkok as, it seemed, much of the world was contributing to the cause. (Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)

Their plight appears to have captured the world's imagination on a scale that few other calamities have. Canada, the U.S. and Europe — the usual suspects — have responded with great generosity.

But so, too, have ordinary people and governments in dozens of unexpected places, from the Middle East to Latin America and Thailand.

This global outpouring raises the question, why do we care so much about this particular cause?

It also raises that other vexing question of our instant, fix-it-now world: Will we follow through?

A collective responsibility

Through the safety of a television screen or the internet, we've all watched helplessly from a distance wondering why, if there is a God, does He wreak such vengeance on Haiti.

Crazed TV preachers such as Pat Robertson think they have the answer — that Haitians brought this on themselves by their supposedly wicked ways and dealings with the Devil.

(Because apparently when Americans overthrow the British they are freedom fighters, but when black slaves overthrow the French, they've made a deal with Devil.)

But the truly good people around the world have their own answer to him, having stepped forward as they do in times of need, giving with open hearts and open wallets.

Perhaps that is because we feel we are somehow collectively responsible for letting a problem like Haiti fester as it did.

The world has taken much from Haiti.

Even in throwing off the French in the 1800s, the country was burdened with a massive debt that would take Haiti more than a hundred years to pay off, in the process leaving it impoverished and environmentally vulnerable.

In the 1970s and '80s, it was the Americans who "helped" the Haitians keep Communism at bay by propping by the brutal dictatorships of the Duvaliers.

When that regime finally fell, the U.S. and Canada vowed to stand by Haiti and help it rebuild. But other projects seemed always to get in the way.

Break that cycle

Now, hundreds of millions of dollars will be funnelled into Haiti, which is exactly what needs to happen.

But the international community has already been sending millions of dollars to Haiti for years now, and that money has been terribly mismanaged and appears to have done little for the actual poor who need it the most.

The challenge this time will be to do it properly, which hopefully is what the big summit of foreign ministers in Montreal this week will be trying to get their heads around.

Perhaps one of the cruellest things about earthquakes and other natural disasters is that they seem to disproportionately hurt the poorest and most vulnerable among us, those who don't have clout to follow through on their own.

Be it the Achenese during Indonesia's Boxing Day tsunami; or the villagers in northern Pakistan during the 2006 earthquake; or the poor of New Orleans who suffered the most when Hurricane Katrina broke the levees.

If we are serious about giving Haiti stability and progress then aid organizations and the international leadership will have to learn from the lessons and the mistakes of the past.

If post-tsunami Indonesia is an example, as I discovered on a recent visit, the best intentions of the UN and Western aid agencies can spark a cultural backlash that doesn't always bring the most generous minded to power.

Silver lining?

Many people are now focused on the so-called silver lining, the hope that Haiti can rebuild with better standards. But who will monitor that reconstruction of the buildings and the society?

Who will ensure that the work is done reputably and the aid money will not be mismanaged or squandered away carelessly as we have seen happen in the past.

Our attention is gripped by this story — for now. But as with every news story, we will lose interest and our focus will shift to the next crisis or political intrigue or celebrity scandal.

Five years after their disasters, neither hurricane-hit New Orleans or tsunami-ravaged Indonesia are anywhere near being fully rebuilt.

Maybe that's just human nature. But maybe Haiti can be different.

It has been through so much, so often. Surely we all have a duty to help it break that cycle.