In this season of new life, the Haitian people, who have endured so many years of crucifixion, deserve a chance to experience a much-prayed-for national resurrection.
It’s easy to be skeptical about the prospects for the success of the reconstruction effort. Too many times, aid to Haiti has been ill-spent or stolen by governments too corrupt and despotic to be worthy of their people. Still, the proper response to that tragic history must not be cynicism, but unshakable determination.
This perilous moment, a fearsome interval between the calamitous Jan. 12 earthquake and the looming rainy season, is precisely the right time for the community of nations to emulate the inspiring resilience of the Haitian people and match it with an equally persistent long-term commitment.
A decent first step took place this past Wednesday at the United Nations. Donor nations pledged billions of dollars, including $1.15 billion from the United States, in addition to the $900 million it has already devoted to recovery from the quake. Even if, as expected, some nations give less than they have pledged, there will be a strong flow of funds, including generous private contributions.
But money is not the core problem. It’s the tough work of building institutions and relationships that have been either weak or nonexistent.
The goal is not only to clear the rubble, but to construct a functioning nation: to “build back better,” in the phrase of the moment. That will require a profound break with the past.
It will mean developing a central government that is both strong and accountable. That government must listen to the poor it has ignored, coordinate well with the nongovernmental organizations that are doing so much on the ground to help, and decentralize power by developing more viable local governments.
All this has to happen despite the loss of so many civil servants in the quake. And it must start in a year when a presidential election is scheduled, with all the attendant frictions – if, that is, Haiti can recover enough to carry it off. Meanwhile, the incumbent president, René Préval, labors under the burden of bitter anger over what many Haitians consider his weak post-quake performance.
Now Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, with former President Bill Clinton, will run a new entity, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. It brings together Haitians and foreign donors to guide the recovery for 18 months, then becomes the Haitian-controlled Haitian Development Authority.
The Clinton factor
Clinton is the right person for this job. He has had a deep interest in Haiti, dating all the way back to his honeymoon trip there with Hillary Rodham Clinton–now the secretary of state overseeing much of the American response.
As president, Clinton had a mixed record on Haiti. He led in the reinstatement of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after a coup. But he recently apologized publicly for pushing Haiti to drop rice tariffs, which helped farmers in his native Arkansas but devastated rice farmers in Haiti.
Make sure Haitians are involved in all the critical decisions.
Listen to nongovernmental organizations. They’re spending millions of dollars contributed by private citizens, and they’re close to the people.
Ensure that food aid, which is crucial in the short-term, doesn’t further weaken Haitian farmers. Hundreds of thousands have left ravaged Port-au-Prince for the countryside, but unless Haitian agriculture recovers from the global forces that have devastated it, the countryside will be no answer.
Put a top priority on education, replacing the teachers who died and the school buildings that fell. Without that, a whole generation could be lost to illiteracy and poverty.
Stress accountability. Some “donor fatigue” may be inevitable, but governments and private citizens will be more inclined to keep giving if their money is being well spent.
Like Clinton, we Americans have a mixed history with Haiti, from its origins until modern times. The revolt of Haitian slaves played a major role in France’s decision to pull up stakes and sell 828,000 square miles to the United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Yet President Thomas Jefferson feared that the revolt that led to Haitian independence in 1804 could inspire American slaves to rise up too, and he refused to recognize the new republic. In fact, the United States did not recognize Haiti until 1862.
More recently, Aristide accused the United States of complicity in the 2004 coup that removed him – a belief widely held in Haiti. Some members of the U.S. House of Representatives have expressed the same concerns, proposing a commission to investigate American involvement. The bill has made little progress, but suspicions linger.
Now, through government and private giving and the key roles of both Clintons, we have a chance for redemption. Bringing Haiti back to life, after a world-historical natural disaster, will require a tireless persistence. We owe at least that to the people of this long-suffering nation.
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