CNN posted an article today about the controversy surrounding Royal Caribbean's decision to resume sending cruise ships to their private resort on Haiti. Many are criticizing the company for the move, saying tourists shouldn't be enjoying the high-life while people continue to die nearby. The company has defended its decision saying that bringing tourism to the island contributes to the health of the economy. They also argue that diverting the ship to another destination wouldn't actually help anyone on the island.
I must admit that at first glance the thought of enjoying a day on the beach just down from Port-au-Prince does seem tacky at best. But as I continued to explore the idea, it occurred to me that the discussion is really one of scale. Haiti has been and will continue to be one of the poorest countries in the world. People died of malnutrition and disease there long before the current disaster, and yet the cruise ships came. In ten years, people will still be dying of causes that the tourists could never comprehend, and yet the cruise ships will come. If I, as an individual, didn't care about or contribute to the solution before, cancelling my cruise now won't actually affect the outcome.
I must confess that I have struggled with my own response to the disaster in Haiti. It is a hugely catastrophic situation, to be sure, but again I contend that the scale of the situation is what disinguishes it, not the specific suffering involved. Every day, everywhere, people suffer just as miserably and I look away. Why do I feel more inclined to try to ease the suffering of Haitian earthquake victims but didn't feel so inclined two weeks ago to lighten the load of the Haitian poor?
Please let me clarify that I completely recognize the wealth that I live in. I have never known a single day of poverty in my life. I can think of twice that I have seen poverty, real poverty, personally. When I was 17, I attended a community service trip with my school to Chaco, an area in northern Argentina. I remember seeing the rural poor, people who lived in small, self-built shacks with no utilities. About a year later, I went on a mission trip to Paso de Aguila, a bordertown in Mexico. We worked in what I can only call a slum, and I still marvel at the conditions of the people there. But mostly, I have continued to live my upper middle-class life, happy to enjoy uninterrupted warm water, electricity, and air conditioning. For me, poverty is not being able to take a vacation this year or having to wait yet another year to upgrade to HD cable. I do not know what it means to actually wonder where my food will come from, or question if my child will catch a water-borne illness, or if that child will die if it gets sick.
So let me try to come back around to my point, if indeed there is one. I have always lived, still live, and will continue to live in a world where I am more privileged and wealthy than almost everyone else in the world. How am I to live globally, not focusing on the affluence of the people around me, but on the stark, endless poverty that so much of the world lives in? In two months, when the cameras have left Haiti and the cruise ships return guilt-free, will I still care about the people who live there?