Sunday, January 09, 2011

Aftermath of the worse single urban catastrophe in modern history

It's not the magnitude of earthquakes nor the level of flood waters alone that define the degree of devastation (in human terms) inflicted by natural disasters. Poverty also factors into the equation. Poverty also plays a major role in determining the timeliness and effectiveness rebuilding efforts are - just look at New Orleans. Greed and corrupt politics (surprise) are the primary reasons why even well-intentioned relief efforts fall miserably short. (GW)

Earthquake exposed lingering problems in Haiti

January 9, 2011
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

One year ago, perhaps the worse single urban catastrophe in modern history befell an already much too beleaguered Haiti. Goudou-goudou, the onomatopoeic Creole word for the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, took some 300,000 lives and cost billions in destroyed property and infrastructure.

In the immediate aftermath of the region's biggest disaster in 200 years, the island nation avoided the expected outbreak of disease and social disorder. Yet, on the island nation, 2010 ended with both — a still uncontained cholera epidemic that has claimed more than 2,000 lives and wide-spread civil disorder due to flawed elections that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of a new government.

The earthquake, however, has not so much created new challenges as it has laid bare for all to see those that have piled up over a very long time. This explains why, one year later, there is so little evidence of Port-au-Prince rising from the dust and ashes of the earthquake 12 months ago. Much rubble and debris has yet to be removed; rebuilding projects wait for the government to promulgate new building codes; and what reconstruction that is happening is hobbled by lack of materials — even construction grade sand is in short supply.

One can be tempted to be impatient — but recovery from natural disasters has been slow even in the resource-rich United States. It took years for southern Miami-Dade County to recover from Hurricane Andrew; and New Orleans — five years later — is still struggling to overcome Katrina.

The goudou-goudou was more than just a natural disaster — stronger quakes hit Chile and New Zealand in the same year with less destruction and loss of human life. What brought Haiti to its knees was not so much the shifting of its tectonic plates but its grinding poverty. For this reason, one cannot simply rebuild Port-au-Prince the "way it was." For what was, was inherently unsustainable and inhuman: at the time of the earthquake, some 3 million people (a third of the nation's population) eked out a miserable existence in a concentrated area whose public infrastructure — health care and utilities — was built for about 100,000 people, mostly during the U.S. military occupation from 1915 to 1935.

Nor can one attack the challenges of "rebuilding after the earthquake" without addressing the endemic problems of the entire country. In fact, while the earthquake laid bare the problems of over-urbanized Port-au-Prince, it led to the neglect of the rest of the country by both the Haitian government and most international aid agencies.

Displaced people from Port-au-Prince returned to their ancestral hometowns where they lodged with relatives, putting strains on local food supplies, schools and hospitals. But, with all the attention focused on Port-au-Prince, little assistance reached the provinces — which led to most of these "refugees" making their way back to Port-au-Prince, swelling the already overcrowded tent cities.

The agricultural and rural areas of Haiti need help to achieve basic sustainable development — and the irony is Haitian soil is fertile. There is a need to decentralize: too much of the existing government services, the economic activity and the population's access to jobs, health care and education are all centered in Port-au-Prince — just take a look at the abysmal difference between Port-au-Prince and Cape Haitien, not to mention Les Cayes or Gonaives.

For over three generations, this centralization has driven landless peasants into Port-au-Prince. They lived in housing that lacked the rudiments of modern life, along unpaved roads and potholed streets without access to clean water, sanitation or reliable electricity. Many of their private structures were built with the help of relatives in the United States.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, perhaps some $15 billion worth of remittances over 25 years became deadly rubble in just 60 seconds on Jan. 12. And now, with their homes destroyed, some 1.3 million of them live under tarps in tent cities that dot the greater Port-au-Prince area.

Critical to Haiti's recovery and development, is a clear, long-term commitment from the United States and other friends of the Haitian people. The new Congress should re-introduce legislation similar to what was the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act (HR 6021) in the previous Congress. Legislation like that would provide a framework to guide long term assistance to Haiti. At the same time, it would encourage both the Haitian government and civil society to look beyond immediate needs and plan for the future.

Millions of dollars have been spent in humanitarian assistance; millions more have been pledged for recovery assistance but this has to be spent in an environment of transparency and accountability. Haiti needs an effective plan for U.S. aid that provides a coherent framework for such assistance, commits at least medium-term funding and creates some stability and direction for the reconstruction and development programs.

This kind of commitment would create the stability and predictability necessary for U.S. and other international assistance to support the Haitian government in governance and capacity building.

HOPE II, passed in 2008, afforded textile goods assembled in Haiti duty free access to U.S. markets, bringing thousands of new jobs to Haiti. HELP (The Haiti Economic Lift Program, passed by Congress in June of 2010) expanded and improved HOPE II and potentially could also bring thousands of jobs to Haiti. In fact, new industrial areas are being built in the northeast of the country in anticipation of the new demand. Haitians, when given the opportunity to work — whether at home or abroad — have proved to be most productive. Free-trade zones established outside of Port-au-Prince on land not now used for agricultural productions can create new jobs and help decentralize the capital city at the same time.

For any of this to succeed requires on the part of the United States and other donor countries a new and strengthened resolve to hold Haitians (and their foreign partners) in both the private and public sector accountable. Rather than further contribute to the dependency created by the "misery industry" enabled by both governmental and non-governmental organizations, U.S. policy should be guided by a mix of generosity and hard-nosed realism.

Haiti is a cemetery of "aid projects." The good intentions alone will not put Haiti on the road to sustainable prosperity; also needed are hard work, effective planning, accountable follow-up, and the production of goods and services that people around the world need and want.

Twenty five years have passed since the end of the Duvalier dictatorships. Yet the Haitian proverb, Ki mele pis grangou chen (What concern is it to the flea that the dog is hungry?) still too accurately describes the failure of Haiti's political classes to live up to the aspirations of the Haitian people for accountable and transparent governance. As the scandalous "inefficiencies" of Haiti's sole international port still show, the "kleptocrats" in and out of the government (and there are many of them in the latter category) have more sway than the "democrats".

These "kleptocrats" that operate in and out of the government need to be sidelined if the Haitian people's aspirations for a future of hope are not to be frustrated yet again. (And this cannot be done simply by withholding funds from badly needed projects benefiting the people, but by helping create a cadre of efficient and accountable civil servants among other things). There is no better place to start doing this than with the Port Authority of Port-au-Prince.

Since most of Haiti's imports originate in South Florida, perhaps the state of Florida or some federal agency could (for a fee) pre-clear and collect any duties on exports destined for Haiti and imports coming from there. This would guarantee a steady flow of revenue to the Haitian government, eliminate costly delays of containers held up for weeks over "paper work" that is only an excuse to solicit bribes, and potentially open up Haiti's other provincial port cities for development. Efficiently run ports would facilitate the export growth of the assembly plants made possible by the new HELP legislation as well secure timely and more cost efficient importation of construction materials needed for the recovery. All of this would create the positive cycle Haiti needs to succeed. The new government of Haiti should seek such partnerships — rather than reverting to business as usual.

We cannot walk away from Haiti — a neighboring country of nine million people only 800 miles away from South Florida. We all, including the Haitian diaspora and their grown children living in the U.S., have a stake in making this work.

The Most Rev. Thomas Wenski is Archbishop of Miami. He is a member of the Haiti advisory group for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and has had Haitian ministries for years.

Copyright © 2011, South Florida Sun-Sentinel


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