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Friday, March 18, 2011

Jimmy Carter was right: Life isn't fair

Fourteen months ago there was an earthquake in Haiti. Estimates of the death toll, according to Wikipedia, range from 92,000 to 316,000. No one will ever know how many. In Japan this week, a substantially lower death toll is estimated -- in the tens of thousands. Eventually Japan, with its better record-keeping and I.T. infrastructure, will come up with a reasonably accurate count.

This is an occasion for reflection. Both countries are islands with mountainous interiors. Both suffer earthquakes frequently. Their population densities are nearly identical. But that's where the similarities end.

Japan is the third largest economy in the world, with a per capita GDP of $42,000 -- roughly the same as the United States. Haiti's per capital GDP is $733. That's correct: more than a 50:1 ratio. Japan's wealth allows it to use leading-edge principles of engineering in its buildings. Haiti's poverty means that its buildings are marginal in design and constructed of poor materials.

The result? Japan takes a magnitude 9.0 earthquake -- 100 times more powerful than the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti -- but has one-third the casualties. Wealth does matter.

International relief agencies are soliciting funds for Japan. That's understandable. Even a wealthy country like Japan will be stretched to meet needs of its citizens, just as the U.S. was stretched (and still is) to meet the needs in New Orleans after Katrina.

But the desperately poor in Haiti remain poor, and now the earthquake in Japan will have the inevitable effect of diverting some aid that would otherwise have made its way to Haiti.

I've never set foot in Haiti, but I've been to Japan more times than I can count. I don't know anyone in Haiti, but I've got many contacts in Japan -- a few of whom I've heard from, directly or indirectly, and thankfully they're all safe.

Yet I find myself thinking about Haiti today, and it's uncomfortable.