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Haiti's Future Must Not be More of the Same

The eyes of the world are focussed daily on the terrible images of Haiti on television screens and in newspapers.  The consequent flood of humanitarian assistance from all parts of the world has been great and admirable.  But, the world’s governments and international organisations must also look beyond the present catastrophe to rebuilding the country and establishing a productive Haitian society.


In the forefront of the effort to provide Haiti with the necessary resources to reconstruct the country and revive its society should be France and the United States, the two countries that did the most to batter it to its knees and keep it there after the Haitian people fought for their freedom and declared their independence in 1804.


Up until 1947, the Haitian state paid reparations demanded by France for plantations and slaves owned by the French.  Then, in 1914 the United States sent in gunboats to enforce payments for loans owed to US banks.  US occupation until the 1930’s remains a dark stain on the record of US relations with Haiti.


As much as 70% of Haiti’s gross domestic product (GDP) was extracted every year for over a hundred years to pay the reparations demanded by France and endorsed by the US and some European nations including Britain.  Which country in the world, confronted with similar conditions, would have been any better than Haiti?  With only 30% of GDP available for over a century, which country would have built the infrastructure, provided the education and health facilities, and created the conditions for sustainable investment?


It is no miracle that the country has survived this long.  It has done so out of widespread and persistent suffering over generations.  Millions of Haitians were born into extreme poverty and died in it for two hundred years, their lives nothing but a daily drudge of misery.


Seventy-eight per cent of Haiti’s 9 million people have to survive on less than US$2 a day; 56 per cent of that 78 per cent endure on US$1 day. In Port-au-Prince, the Capital so badly hit by the earthquake, one estimate suggests that of the 3 million people who reside there - mostly in unimaginable slum dwellings - more than 300,000 (the entire population of St Lucia, St Vincent & The Grenadines and Dominica in the Caribbean) wake up every day without a penny in their pockets.   At the time of the earthquake, Haiti’s unemployment was put as high as 70 per cent; 62 per cent among urban youth.


There has been criticism of Caribbean governments over their response to Haiti.  In this case, the criticism is not deserved.  Within their limited capacities, and at a time when their economies are in difficulty, Caribbean governments each responded proportionately to their means, and some with great generosity.  The Bahamas Prime Minister, Hubert Ingraham, was right to rebuke those in his country who objected to his government’s decision to release Haitian refugees and give them a form of legal status rather than send them back to Haiti at this terrible time.  In Dominica, the government also did the right thing in regularising the status of hundreds of undocumented Haitians. 


It should also be said that while the US worldwide television networks, such as CNN, convey the impression that the US is doing everything in Haiti, other countries and agencies have played a significant role in providing medical attention to the tens of thousands who have been injured.  Canada, Sweden, Norway and Brazil have each played important parts. Cuban doctors and nurses in particular worked round the clock from the very beginning of the disaster.


Cuban Doctors treating injured Haitians


This is not to gainsay the impressive contribution of the US.  In fact, once the US government agencies got started, they showed the best side of the face of the United States.  Their medical teams, their disaster specialists and their troops worked diligently in harrowing conditions to carry relief to people.


On January 25th, an international conference on aid for Haiti will be held in Montreal, Canada.  Before the Conference, the managing-director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, called for a multilateral aid plan like the U.S. "Marshall Plan" that rebuilt Europe after he Second World War. He is not alone in this view.


The plan would have to be extremely well-funded if it is to make a meaningful difference to Haiti and it will have to be implemented efficiently and effectively – that means teams of people competent in a variety of fields active on the ground for many years with supervision to ensure that funds are not wasted.


The presence at that Conference of former Jamaican Prime Minister, P J Patterson, as the representative of the Caribbean should be welcomed by all.  His experience and knowledge both as a political leader and a former head of a Caribbean government will be invaluable.

P J Patterson, former Jamaica Prime Minister


It has to be said that significant, binding changes are also necessary of the ways that the Haitian government operates. In the past resources have been used by governments to support themselves in power, rather than provide sustainable services to the people. This observation is true of many countries, but in Haiti it assumes far greater significance because of the unremitting poverty and chronic underdevelopment.


Given past experiences in Haiti, donor countries and agencies will be loath to provide funding that changes little except immediate problems.  In this connection, the Rene Preval government and the Haitian legislature have to accept that restoring Haiti’s stature in a comprehensive, non-partisan way is their duty as much as providing substantial and life-changing resources is the obligation of the international community.


Haitian President Rene Preval


To restore the dignity of Haiti and to allow it to be a respected part of international society – a right it has been denied since 1804 – requires much money; probably billions of dollars over a ten year period – but it also requires change by the government of Haiti. 


There must be a genuine partnership between aid donors and Haitian authorities to build Haiti socially, economically and environmentally on a basis that is sustainable for all the Haitian people. That partnership must include a readiness by donor governments and financial institutions to provide funding without harsh conditionalities, and willingness by the Haitian government to address social and economic needs and not political considerations.


Haiti’s future must not be more of the same.  Neither Haiti nor the international community can afford it.


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