History teaches us that in 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered America. However, the truth is that he never reached any part of America. Rather, he discovered a few islands in the Bahamas and, more significantly, the island of Hispaniola. There, on Christmas Eve, he established the first European settlement ever in the New World, La Navidad. That experiment failed miserably. Within the first year, the town was destroyed and its inhabitants murdered by the native population. La Navidad was in Haiti, north of current capital Port-au-Prince, which now lies in ruins following a massive earthquake.
Pre-quake, Haiti was already an unenviable place: Half its population lives on less than a dollar a day, making it the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Its infant mortality rate is higher than most African countries and life expectancy is a paltry 44 years. Over 98% of its forests have been chopped and burned for firewood. It is particularly vulnerable to flooding from hurricanes and it suffers from a series of tropical diseases, including diarrhea, dengue fever, typhoid fever, malaria, hepatitis and others.
But on Tuesday, January 12th, things got much worse. A magnitude 7.0 earthquake, with its epicenter 15 km west of Port-au-Prince, devastated Haiti’s capital. Some fatality estimates have been as high as 200,000. Whatever the actual number, it is certain to increase in the days and weeks ahead. On Sunday, January 17th, Presidents Obama, Bush (the son) and Clinton held a joint press conference. President Obama asked his two immediate predecessors to coordinate the effort to rehabilitate Haiti. It was the only the second time in history that three presidents worked together to achieve a common purpose. The first was nearly exactly five years ago, when President Bush (the son) asked his two predecessors, Clinton and his own father, to spearhead a comparable task force to aid tsunami victims across south-east Asia.
Troubles at home, aid abroad
American might is often associated with stealth bombers, massive aircraft carriers, bunker blaster weapons and nuclear powered submarines. It has the strongest military in the world. However, in my view, its true status as a superpower is expressed by its ability to mobilize those same aircraft carriers, Hercules C-130 airplanes, 270 foot Coast Guard cutters, amphibious dock landing ships, and deploy thousands of soldiers, sailors, marines and volunteers on the ground and establish multiple surgical hospitals in a couple of days.
As the world questions America's viability as a superpower, I wonder when the BRIC nations - the darlings of the emerging markets - will emerge as competing global leaders. I ask where are Brazil, Russia, India, China and other putative powers in times of crisis? Granted, Haiti is closer geographically to the United States, but, following the December 2004 tsunami, America was also the dominant provider of aid to India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and many other affected countries thousands of kilometers away.
Everyone assumes that America, as the world's largest economy, should carry the burden of helping less fortunate nations, whether through ongoing humanitarian aid in Africa or relief wherever disaster may strike. And America has shouldered that responsibility disproportionately in Bosnia, Kosovo and numerous other instances. Moreover, it continues to do so today while it suffers from major economic challenges and many within its own borders are unemployed, under-employed, lack basic health insurance and struggle to feed their own families. With the country's staggering deficits, and seeing it stretched to the limit on various fronts, several Americans have objected to their country’s multi-year, multi-billion dollar commitment to rebuild a foreign country.
Nevertheless, most Americans are in favor of providing aid, and are participating themselves. Hundreds of civilian volunteers have traveled to Haiti to help, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised by the Red Cross and other relief agencies through multiple venues, including text messages.
Israel - giving above its weight
Another country that gives significantly above its weight is Israel. With a population approximately half that of Haiti, Israel immediately sent two Boeing 747 Jumbo planes with field medical tents, surgical equipment and 240 personnel: 60 doctors and medics, 20 nurses, 20 X-ray technicians and 140 search and rescue volunteers. The group set up a major field hospital next to Port-au-Prince's soccer stadium. It is among the largest medical facilities operating in Haiti, treating over 500 patients per day. Most of these patients are earthquake victims. However, an IDF team also assisted a Haitian woman who delivered what is believed to be the first baby born after the disaster. She named her daughter Israel.
Israel has disproportionate experience dealing with search and rescue, much of it acquired pulling victims out of buildings and buses destroyed in terrorist attacks. For these reasons, it also developed heightened expertise in triage and trauma. It has applied this experience in previous disaster scenes around the world, including Mexico, Argentina, Armenia, Kenya and Turkey.
So while Columbus did not in fact discover America, now America and the rest of the world have discovered Haiti. As Israelis, Turks, Swedes and volunteers from over 30 other countries help steer Haiti’s survivors towards recovery, we learn that in disaster, race, ethnicity and socio-economic background become meaningless. In times of tragedy, the true nature of humanitarian power is tested. Personally, I watch with pride as entities often criticized as Big Satan and Little Satan perform as Big Angel and Little Angel, regardless of who’s watching.
Lyon (Lenny) Roth is a senior executive at an international wealth management firm and a member of Ben Gurion University's Board of Governors.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on January 21, 2010
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2010