Rebuilding Haiti

Media Releases, News, Opinion article written on the 01 Apr 2010

The statues of Haiti’s heroes who led the slave revolt centuries ago are no longer visible. The square overlooking the now destroyed Presidential Palace has become a mass of makeshift shelters where families of earthquake victims try to put their lives together. The new shanty town which has sprung up obscures those national symbols of tumultuous change and great hope.

Now Haiti is once again on the cusp of a new era – hoping the turmoil, misery and destruction of recent months may be the catalyst needed to start planning for a stable and prosperous future. This week in New York, governments from wealthy countries and businesses will pledge billions of dollars for Haiti’s reconstruction.

There is a great deal at stake and a stark choice. Out of the ruins could rise either a new Haiti, built on strong foundations of social justice, or the Haiti of old, rebuilt on inequality. Haitians urgently need shelter and sanitation. Impending rains threaten misery and the spread of disease.

There are more than one million homeless people and only 60 per cent have either a tent or basic plastic sheeting. There was a 12-hour downpour two weeks ago which was just a taste of what the rainy season will bring.

Building a better Haiti means tackling both long and short-term housing with proper provision of water and sanitation, schools and hospitals, and opportunities for work.

Reconstruction of the country must be for Haitians and led by Haitians. It is true that in a country where government institutions are weak, putting such a massive task on its shoulders requires a leap of faith. But unless money and political capital is invested in local and national leadership any plan will fail. Since disaster struck, the Haitian government has been slow to make decisions and unable to communicate a viable vision for the reconstruction of the country. But in other areas it has been effective, quickly supporting people who wanted to return to rural areas, allowing people and goods to enter the country tax-free and facilitating the humanitarian response.

What was truly remarkable about the response to this disastrous earthquake was the way communities very quickly set up effective local committees which organised the spontaneous camps and dealt with the distribution of aid. A young committee member of one of the camps, Stephan Durogene, told Oxfam, “I didn’t know I had it in me. It’s during the earthquake I realized I can be a good leader.” A new generation of young leaders has begun to emerge who could play a crucial part in building a fairer society.

The Haitian government must be held accountable not just to international donors paying the bills but to ordinary citizens like Stephen. A mass public information campaign would be a good place to begin. More initiatives such as the one started by a Haitian radio station which has given out free radios could effect real change.

The final but most critical item for the New York conference’s consideration should be the planning of a strategic, substantial and sustainable international support effort in close coordination with Haitians.

Rebuilding Haiti will be a massive task requiring significant levels of international support. The government estimates that the country will need roughly US $12bn over the next three years to rebuild. How much money will be pledged at the New York conference is not known, but the Government is anticipating US $3bn. It remains to be seen how much of these pledges turn into actual cash support and to what extent the Haitian government is able to absorb such large sums.

Together with the government, international donors need to ensure that women are equal partners in the new Haiti, actively increasing their participation in the reconstruction – from the community level to the highest reaches of government. Women can enter the workforce more easily when projects such as providing childcare and training enable them to participate on an equal basis with men.

All this will take time. But we have to get it right at the start or else the old Haiti will emerge from the ruins. The aid effort is reaching more and more people each day and after a choppy start, coordination of the aid effort is in full swing. But the vastness of the task should not be underestimated.

As a proportion of population affected, the impact of this disaster was the greatest ever to hit any country. And it happened in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Even before the earthquake hit, 80 per cent of the population survived on less than $2 a day and nearly 60 per cent of people were undernourished.

Haiti’s largest slum Carrefour, meaning crossroads, is well-named. Haiti is indeed at a crossroads and must be empowered to cast aside the rubble and rebuild a better and more equitable world.

This Opinion Piece by Oxfam Australia Executive Director Andrew Hewett first appeared in the National Times –