Haiti: End nation's vulnerability
Haiti: End nation's vulnerability
Op-Ed / Latin America & Caribbean 3 minutes

Haiti: End nation's vulnerability

Within a week after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, the death toll had mounted to the worst from any natural disaster in recorded history in the Americas. The country's famous 'radio jol', or word-of-mouth, carries the same sad news hour after hour of family that has been lost and of homes destroyed. E-mails continue to pour in telling us of friends and colleagues who were killed, and of those who somehow managed to survive.

The challenge the world now faces is to quickly assess the damage with the Haitian authorities and then ensure a coordinated international response equal to the magnitude of the disaster. They must help Haiti build back stronger and better, and partner with Haiti's leaders and communities to work to end the country's environmental, economic, social and political vulnerability.

In 1999, when Hurricane Mitch struck Central America, 9,000 lives were taken in a space of two days. Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala suffered $6 billion in damage. Less than eight weeks later, the United States organized a donors' conference at the International Development Bank in Washington and secured $6.3 billion in commitments for the next three years.

Four months later, Sweden organized another donors' conference where Central American governments, business and civil society organizations agreed on detailed reconstruction plans, with ways to improve development opportunities and new mechanisms for joint monitoring. Haiti today needs a similar compact, fully founded on an understanding of the dire situation even before this devastating earthquake. For Haiti to recover, those with power and influence will have to agree to address the country's destabilizing poverty and end the restricted access to the most basic services.

Before the earthquake, Haitian women died in childbirth at 70 times the rate of women in the United States. One out of every eight children died before their fifth birthday. About 40 percent of school-aged children were not in school, and some 80 percent of those who were, received poor quality education in private, nearly unregulated but expensive schools. What comes next has to be better.

Partisan battles in Washington have been symbolically put to rest with the teaming up of former Presidents Clinton and Bush in pursuing help for Haiti.

Before the earthquake struck, Haiti already had agreement on a post-hurricane poverty reduction strategy, which included jobs creation, private sector investment and a public infrastructure package. Donors agreed it was a good plan, but it only offered $353 million in new money. Starting from scratch doesn't mean jettisoning that work; it means offering additional opportunities.

New physical infrastructure investments should be environmentally sound, hurricane- and earthquake-resistant, with new and enforced building codes. Haitians should be trained and employed to do this work.

As school buildings are reconstructed, so, too, must the public education system be rebuilt to offer free, quality schooling to children, with teacher training, standards for private schools and a conditional cash-transfer program to help impoverished families keep their children in school.

There is also an important message to take from the hurricane victims from Port-au-Prince, who have lost their houses and are now returning to their home villages in the countryside. This is an opportunity to invest in regional development centers around Haiti, spreading the jobs, schools and health centers, and giving Haiti a better balance for its economic and political future. Investing in small farmers is part of that regional development. Not too long ago, Haiti did not depend on foreign rice or food aid.

The Haitian government and U.N. mission were building a civilian police force that respected its citizens. The last poll showed 60 percent popular approval -- a far cry from when a corrupt, repressive force was feared and despised. This must continue.

Not only have ministry buildings been destroyed by the earthquake, but sadly many of its officials did not survive either. Haiti's civil service is going to require international triage, ministry by ministry, where international experts work side-by-side with Haitian officials not just to reconstruct what once stood but to offer more: modern communications systems and equipment, logistics, management and training.

To do all this, Haiti will need much more than the $6 billion raised for Central America a decade ago. Implementing a reconstruction strategy and coordinating the projects across sectors are going to require a supreme effort at coordination by the UN, International Development Bank, World Bank, Organization of America States and a host of donors, including the United States, the European Union, Canada, France, and regional partners.

Only a long-term, unified, multi-billion dollar strategy will transform Haiti's future.

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