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Pulling Haiti from under the rubble

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1 Pulling Haiti from under the rubble on Fri Jan 14, 2011 9:35 am


BY Claude Robinson

AS we approach the first anniversary (January 12) of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed some 200,000 people and left nearly two million homeless in Haiti, people of conscience everywhere must be appalled that so little has been done to return the country to anything near normal.

More than one million are still living under flimsy pieces of tarpaulin euphemistically called 'tents'; much of the capital Port-au-Prince is still buried under rubble, which is also the tomb for countless thousands; and only a fraction of the promised US$5.5 billion in reconstruction money has been forthcoming.

All of this on top of historic poverty, political uncertainty and a deadly cholera epidemic, itself rooted in the new reality created by the earthquake.

Why has the pace of recovery and reconstruction been so slow; and what can be done to change that reality in the shortest possible time? Those were some of the issues addressed at a three-day workshop (January 5-7) among Haitian, Jamaican and Caricom officials in Kingston.

The workshop follows on meetings in Haiti at the end of December when the Haitian Government and the Caribbean Community (Caricom) signed an agreement to strengthen Haiti's institutional capacity to rebuild the government infrastructure that was lost in the earthquake.

Under the agreement, Caricom will supply public service personnel to help support Haiti through technical expertise in administration and security and other areas defined by the Haitans.

At a media briefing Thursday afternoon, in-between their meetings, Haitian prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive and the Caricom special representative on Haiti, PJ Patterson explained the reasons for the slow response and appeared cautiously optimistic that things may begin to change soon while admitting that it is not an easy road ahead.

Mr Bellerive said that the uncertain "political situation" in Haiti was a major reason why some donor governments and international institutions had not met their commitments. Translated, donors are saying they need to have a stable government in place so they can know who they are making deals with.

But there is little immediate prospect that this will happen. The November 28 presidential election, which the donors and the international community insisted on, has still not produced a winner and there is no agreement among the three front-runners on how to break the deadlock.

So there will not be a new, constitutional president in place by February 7 when incumbent Rene Preval is scheduled to demit office.

It is understood that officials from the Organisation of American States have been busy in recent days trying to put an interim arrangement in place, but Mr Bellerive Thursday declined to be drawn into what the deal might be or whether he would head the transitional arrangement.

The post-election uncertainty was entirely predictable. First, the major donors sought and ensured that Fanmi Lavalas, the political grouping of ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was excluded from fielding a candidate, a certain source of contention among their large number of supporters among the impoverished masses.

Second, neither the physical nor psychological conditions existed for free and fair elections. Most of the governmental machinery, including critical officials, had been destroyed by the earthquake and there was no way that a clean, credible voters' list could have been prepared under the circumstances prevailing at the time.

So the question is: Why insist on elections under such conditions and now plead that you can't honour your commitment because there is no certain government in place?

Another issue stressed both by Mr Bellerive and Mr Patterson is that the donors are more interested in funding projects in which they have an interest rather than in supporting the priorities determined by the Government of Haiti and Caricom.

Mr Patterson said that at the last meeting of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) -- the body established by the international community to co-ordinate the recovery effort -- he was "very, very upset" to discover that "most of the projects" being considered for funding "emanated from the donor countries and agencies" and were not in line with Haitian priorities. The IHRC is jointly chaired by Mr Bellerive and former US President Bill Clinton.

The Haitian priorities are removal of the rubble, dismantling of partially collapsed structures, removal of the 'tents', recovery of the agricultural sectors (critical to rural job creation and easing the pressure on Port-au-Prince), and building institutional capacity.

On the other hand, donors want big projects like highways and hospitals. Presumably these will play better with voters back home and, more important, most of the value will be retained by the donor who will provide raw materials, know-how and key personnel.

Bellerive appeared confident that specific, fundable projects will come out of the Kingston workshop that he and Mr Clinton can sign off on and get funding without too much further delay.

Hopefully, the guarded optimism is not misplaced, but it must be acknowledged that Mr Patterson pointed out that a major objective now was to convince the international community that Haiti needs to take full control of the recovery and development efforts with donor support.

Among other things, Mr Patterson and his Caricom colleagues will have to convince the international community that if they agree to hand over the reins, their concerns about transparency and cost-effectiveness will be adequately addressed.

It may be harder to convince them than to change old mindsets about Haiti. Ever since black people in Haiti waged a 13-year successful revolutionary war against the colonial might of Europe and declared their independence January 1, 1804, the Haitian Republic has been met by a pattern of crippling blockades and embargoes, isolation, aggression, invasion and punitive measures by Europe and America.

Media in Jamaica and the Caribbean will also have to do more to explain the historical complexities and the present predicament of the Haitian people to our own people. Much of the propaganda and stereotyping needs to be eliminated.

Covering Haiti properly will take effort and money, an admitted difficulty in these recessionary times. But perhaps the Media Association of Jamaica, working with the Press Association of Jamaica, could put together a pool reporting team (print, radio and television) to use the occasion of this first anniversary to begin to do some joint reporting with the output shared by all participating media. In the interest of regionalism and solidarity with the people of Haiti I recommend the proposal to our media managers.

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