No. 1: Haiti Earthquake

Before a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, the Caribbean nation was already holding on by a thread. Haiti struggled with political corruption, desperate poverty, and starvation. Because of overfarming, floods, and deforestation, the country could not feed itself: Just two years ago, hungry Haitians stormed the presidential palace when rising world food prices caused a food shortage. With the country’s infrastructure already precariously close to collapsing, the Haiti quake made for the most devastating impact that the world has seen in a century.

The temblor, with its epicenter located 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, radiated waves of destruction through the Haitian capital. Most of the poorly constructed buildings toppled as if they were made of paper.

Countries around the world pledged money and resources, but aid workers found getting help through Haiti’s damaged port and limited airport a logistical nightmare, and they had no way to manage the Haitians’ overwhelming needs.

Relatively wealthy Americans returned home to tell stories of spending days trapped in the rubble of high-end hotels.  The death toll climbed to an estimate of more than 250,000 people: Haitians rescued from being buried underground were dying in the makeshift hospitals from secondary infections or dehydration. Some locals questioned how foreign rescue squads prioritized searches, if luxury hotels were deemed more important.

Further scandal erupted when American missionaries were arrested after they tried to take 33 Haitian “orphans” out of the country. Many of the kids actually had parents who thought that giving up their children would offer them a better future. The scandals weren’t restricted to misguided outsiders: Refugee camps were set up right next to luxury nightclubs, which returned to business as usual within a few weeks.

Chaos aside, the tragedy was at the forefront of the American public’s consciousness. Many rushed to give during the star-studded Hope for Haiti Now telethon, hosted by George Clooney and Wyclef Jean, which raised $61 million. The quake brought political foes George W. Bush and Bill Clinton together to assist in the crisis. By October, the American Red Cross reported raising $476 million.

At the end of 2010, however, Port-au-Prince is nowhere near rebuilt, the Haitian government remains barely able to distribute aid and health care, much less hold a presidential election. Only a small percentage of the $5.3 billion in aid promised by world governments has arrived in Haiti. The U.S. waited until November to release 10 percent of a $1.2 billion pledge towards rebuilding, withheld for months out of fear the money would be misspent. The cholera outbreak from unsanitary conditions, which has left hundreds dead, however has urged another round of handouts, and the World Bank pledged a $10 million emergency grant, largely to NGOs already handling the medical response.

Yet it’s precisely the co-dependent relationship between thousands of NGOs (non-governmental organizations and charities) and an unstable government that has refueled a backlash against more giving. (NPR’s This American Life compellingly walked through the impossibly entangled bureaucracy trying to help the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.)

As people work to coordinate the funds, the specter of another devastation may be at hand: Scientists have discovered a “blind” fault that is likely to produce an even larger earthquake in Haiti in years to come.

Find out how to help the Haiti relief efforts and microlending strategies.

–Lisa Hix