Erik Gable: Why the Gulf isn't like Haiti

Erik Gable

There’s a paragraph that’s been making the rounds lately — on Facebook statuses, blog posts, Web forums and even the occasional letters to the editor section. You’ve probably seen it. It goes more or less like this:

“So where are all the ‘Save the Gulf’ concerts? Where are the TV benefits with celebrities and musicians giving heartfelt speeches on the poor fishermen, wildlife, beaches, loss of income and sabotaged gulf economy? I find it very sad how these people (including our own government) are so quick to help Haiti and other countries ... but sit on their butts for this one. Just the facts.”

The underlying message, it seems, is that “these people” — Hollywood liberals and the Obama administration, I’m guessing — care only about people in other countries, and not about Americans.

To an extent, it’s an understandable sentiment. “Help your own first” is a very human instinct. All other things being equal, we tend to first make sure our families are taken care of, then our immediate friends and neighbors, then the communities we live in.

But here’s the problem: All things are not equal, and the oil spill in the Gulf is not the Haitian earthquake.

It’s hard to write about this without seeming to trivialize the human and ecological disaster taking place in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s not my intent. The BP oil spill is a catastrophe of huge proportions that could affect the economy and ecology of the entire region for years to come.

But it’s not the same as Haiti.

Haiti, which was plagued by extreme poverty even before the January earthquake. Haiti, where more than 200,000 people were killed in the quake alone — and about a million more were left homeless. Haiti, where countless thousands found themselves at imminent risk of death from disease or starvation.

There’s no doubt that bad things happen in the United States. People are homeless. People live with hunger.

But it’s easy to forget, living in this country, the extent of the poverty and misery that exists in much of the world outside our borders.

Several months ago, I attended a presentation at Lenawee Christian School in Adrian, Mich., by Melissa Buzbee, who runs a school in Nicaragua. The school is located at La Chureca, a massive garbage dump near the capital city of Managua.

The story of La Chureca is one of such crushing desperation that it’s hard for Americans to even imagine. Malnutrition is the rule, not the exception. Physical and sexual abuse are rampant — parents beating their children; families renting out their daughters as prostitutes for the drivers who bring trash to the dump. Adults and children alike piece together a living by digging through trash every day.

The existence of problems here at home should not preclude us from caring about the much worse problems in other places.

Americans, by the way, consistently overestimate how much money we spend on foreign aid. A 1995 study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes asked people to say how much of the federal budget went to foreign aid; the median response was 15 percent. A study released in 2001 asked similar questions; the median estimate was 20 percent. The actual figure? Less than 1 percent. In 1997, a Pew Research Center survey asked people if they thought the U.S. spent more money on foreign aid or on Medicare. Sixty-three percent answered foreign aid; in reality, that year, 10 times more money went to Medicare.

It’s fine to place a priority on projects that involve our own communities and our own country. But we shouldn’t let parochialism blind us to the extent of the problems that exist elsewhere, nor should we deride the people who choose to focus their efforts overseas.

Erik Gable writes for The Daily Telegram in Adrian, Mich. He can be reached by e-mail at