Haiti and the Story of the Starfish on the Beach

First, the story, as I remember it:

starfishOnce upon a time, an old man was walking on a beach strewn with starfish washed up by a storm. A little boy was picking up the stranded starfish one by one and tossing them back into the sea. The old man smiled indulgently and said, “You’re wasting your time, child. There are so many doomed starfish on this beach. You can’t save them all. What difference will it make to save a few of them?” The little boy looked at the starfish in his hand, and as he sent it sailing toward the water, he replied, “It will make a difference to that one.”

I read that story somewhere long ago, so long ago that I’ve forgotten when I read it – or who wrote it. Searching the web, I found the parable was the brainchild of Loren Eiseley, who died in 1977 at the age of 70. Apparently, he is just another one of history’s forgotten authors, but his starfish tale lives on.

The story came to mind as I grieved along with the rest of the world over the unspeakable suffering in Haiti, and pondered the Herculean tasks facing those who would try to help the victims and their battered homeland.

No one can help the dead, of course. The crushed bodies of perhaps two hundred thousand men, women and children will be dumped in mass graves – those who are not left to rot on the pavements and hillsides. Some of the injured, please God most of the injured, will receive care, some not right away, some in the most primitive circumstances, even undergoing amputations and other major surgery without being anesthetized. (One doctor described it on CNN as “Civil War medicine.”)

Many will not be rescued in time. Trapped beneath the rubble, they will die slowly and wretchedly. But every once in a while a miracle occurs… a 13-year-old girl crawls out, an infant is found unharmed, a toddler is dug out alive… one at a time like the starfish on the beach.

haitiMeanwhile, hundreds of thousands roam the streets and countryside, pleading for help, with no homes to return to, no medical care, no water, no food. The world is responding, of course, shipping in thousands of rescue workers and medical professionals, with plane loads of medicine and equipment. Mountains of food and rivers of water are arriving, and relief workers are fanning out from the airport in a race against time. Many of the survivors are still without help but some are receiving water, food and medicine – one at a time, like the starfish on the beach. (In the Los Angeles Times photo above, a boy watches a passing helicopter as Haitians line up to receive high-protein biscuits being handed out by the World Food Program.)

Already, critics are pointing to the inevitable failures. “Too little, too late,” sneers a headline on an article by Bill Quigley in Truthout. Quigley compares the $100 million that President Obama pledged for Haitian relief to a lottery prize of $128 million won by a woman in Kentucky and dismisses the aid amount as a paltry gesture. And there’s no disputing that the rescue effort will take more than $100 million, much more.

I pray that aid to Haiti will not be limited to immediate relief for the earthquake victims, that the destitute country will not be forgotten once the searing images of the disaster’s aftermath fade from the world’s television screens.

The country must be rebuilt from the ground up, whatever it takes. It will be a massive job. In addition to meeting physical demands, such as building infrastructure, schools, hospitals and centers of commerce and industry, there are age-old prejudices and anti-social attitudes to be addressed. A just and efficient system of governance must be put in place. And in the United States, unjust laws that discriminate against Haitian immigrants and refugees must be changed.

Critics will inevitably point to the fact that Haiti is just one of the world’s forgotten countries, that dozens – hundreds – of societies are blighted by poverty and misrule. Like the old man in the story, they will say, the United States and its partners are wasting their time, that there are so many doomed societies in this world, what difference will it make to save one of them?

The reply, of course, is: It will make a lot of difference to that country, that man, that woman, that child. And after Haiti, the work must go on, one starfish at a time until the world is a better place. As the old folks say in Jamaica, “One-one coco fill basket.”