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Could there be silver linings in Haiti’s dark clouds?

It was barely two weeks into the new year, when Haiti was struck with the catastrophic, 7.0  M earthquake that buried, maimed and killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians,  disrupting families and shattering lives, young and old, destroying buildings and roads, testing faith, betraying hope and further compromising the future of  a proud nation and its people. Several months after the disaster international operations have shifted into full gear with U.N. agencies and NGOs ramping up the distribution of supplies and dealing with their specialist areas of security, protection, psycho-social care, shelter, water and sanitation, health, education, and social reconstruction. Challenges being addressed include food, shelter and medical care for millions; psycho-social care for traumatized children; as well as tracing and reuniting families and kick-starting livelihoods.  These commendable humanitarian efforts are expected to ease the chaos and misery in the short term. In the long term it is anticipated that these efforts will dovetail with the broader development plans designed earlier for Haiti. In support of this the international community has again demostrated solidarity with Haitians. At the U.N. donor’s conference of March 31 in New York, almost 60 countries pledged a total of US$ 9.9 billion in aid.  Things seem set for rebuilding damaged infrastructure, getting institutions operational again and bringing normal life back to the millions displaced by the disaster. This may be what aid agencies think is required and it will surely be what they are expected to do with all the money raised, but Haiti is not just another developing country.

What gets done next will depend on which Haiti it is they think they are supporting:  Whether they will approach Haiti as: the poorest nation in the hemisphere; the land and by-word for brutal dictatorships; the bastion of freedom where Napoleon’s army was defeated by revolting slaves; the homeland of multi-talented diasporas in Europe and America; a test-bed for U.S. liberal and conservative ideologies; an arena for human rights and poverty reduction; a victim of God’s wrath; the place to outsource cheap production; recipient of charitable investments; or a collection of souls to save.
Although Haiti might be all these old and tired stereotypes and more to the outsiders providing aid and those inside taking it, a New Haiti must transcend the disastrous moment through innovative strategies for nation building in a fragile State.

For all the good work being done in bringing relief to Haitians and moving on to national reconstruction, there is a danger that the opportunities or silver linings of the disaster will be missed. Measures being proposed so far reflect valiant, yet largely routine, responses and a return to normal development. But for Haiti “normalcy” equates to non-development. The UN Special Envoy to Haiti, former US President Bill Clinton expressed the challenge well when he argued that we should not work to return Haiti to what it was, but to make it into what it deserves to be.

To build a New Haiti calls for creative thinking, bold policy initiatives and transformative change. The type of national leadership, empowered citizenry and intensely engaged Diaspora required for this challenging phase are not likely to emerge from survivalist “cash for work” schemes, charitable aid donations, mass adoption of orphans, migration of families, private investments in “sweat shops” or externally-led reconstruction of infrastructure; or a myriad of conventional development projects; even though all these may seem imperative now.

A breakthrough for Haiti demands more creative thinking, innovative strategies and bold decisions by Haitians and their international partners. Speed is vital and opportunities must be seized at once. Already it is possible to highlight some of the entrenched challenges that can be resolved through this “silver linings”  thinking, and five core concerns are outlined below in this regard. Suitable strategies for achieving success in each of these five areas of concern will require bold policies and creative change.

Strength in a Healing Monument

Nature has dealt a crushing blow and Haiti needs to anchor its grief as a marker for moving forward. It is not just the alarming numbers killed or the gruesome manner of their deaths, but the macabre fate of dead bodies that will continue to haunt a traumatized population. This can sap the will to move forward and to address urgent matters of national reconstruction. In their indefatigable spirit of self help the Haitians have already held what some perceive as a strange service of prayer and thanksgiving on the one-month anniversary of the quake. Moving beyond this a fitting national monument to all earthquake victims must be commissioned urgently with external resources; to be conceived, designed and built by Haitians. This is a critical healing process for traumatized Haitians, who can then turn to development with renewed vigor.

3Es for a New Haiti

A new generation must now remake the future and build the New Haiti. An emphasis on education, empowerment and employment (3Es), especially of the youths, will be critical for reconstruction. In the understandable quest to restore normalcy, the same old schools are now being rapidly brought back on stream, reducing chances of transformative change in education.  To do so misses the opportunity of the moment – to escape the stranglehold of a private-sector-dominated education system that is largely synonymous with mediocrity and profiteering. Instead, reconstruction can help Haiti establish a quality education system that is equitable, affordable and fully inclusive. Starting with a commitment to what a New Haiti deserves, education can be made a more empowering experience for all learners. Most importantly   reconstruction should widen and deepen employment prospects through innovative approaches that help to identify, and cultivate the talents of youths and channel these into livelihoods; e.g. by setting up “Talent Academies” and providing seed financing for start-ups emerging from them.

Changed Governance

Fragile states like Haiti are afflicted by a vicious cycle. Weak governance, endemic poverty and lack of development leave citizens powerless, and make them both more vulnerable to and more accepting of corruption or autocratic rule. Consequently, many qualified and liberal-minded citizens leave in search of better economic and political environments in which to work and raise their families. Invariably also, credible investors shy away from such countries, leaving the field to the “fly-by-night” investors and those seeking to profit from corruption and autocratic rule in their business dealings. Dependency also deepens as the country attracts official humanitarian aid but fails to secure major long term development assistance.

Reconstruction for a New Haiti will require major change in governance through a more participatory democratic process. Amongst other things this calls for changes in communications with the citizenry as electorate. A wind-up radio for every household with an open system of public and private radio stations would be a good start. More extensive availability of cell phones and greater internet connectivity through cyber cafes would be a desirable addition. Haitians may have to choose between powerful and charismatic leaders who could inspire transformational change, and the more technocratic leaders who would focus on development as a national priority over politics.

In making choices for changed governance, it is critical for the large and influential Haitian Diaspora to be more intensively engaged. This means exercising their civic right to vote in elections, but could also be extended to constitutional amendments making it possible for them to have representation in the legislature (Diaspora constituencies) and even be eligible for portfolios in the Cabinet.

Rainbow Money for a Mixed Economy

The levels of predictable long term financing required for reconstruction in Haiti and for building a New Haiti will have to come from a multiplicity of sources. National revenue streams should be re-primed and strengthened, but they would need to be augmented in major ways by sustained and predictable official development assistance, private sector investments and charitable donations. This aggregate of “rainbow money” would need to be used very strategically to facilitate growth of a mixed economy that would benefit all Haitians through growth and fair distribution of wealth. The powerful Haitian Diaspora needs to be engaged in this area. Already the remittances from the Diaspora account for a significant percentage of monetary inflow (to families and individuals). It may be possible to create a new official resource stream based on voluntary “taxation” on the Diaspora. Monthly contributions of US$5.00 from all adults in the Diaspora could be a sizeable revenue stream for development purposes and would also complement the legislative representation proposed above for the Diaspora.

Land of the Living

Much has been made of the contrasting physical environment of Haiti and The Dominican Republic. They share the same land mass but with remarkably different landscapes in terms of deforestation and soil erosion in Haiti compared to lush vegetation and thriving agriculture in the Dominican Republic. This issue needs to be addressed in a New Haiti if development is to be sustainable. Leading economists have highlighted the importance of private ownership of land (title deeds) as a prerequisite for investments and good husbandry of Haiti’s natural land resources. Every major project undertaken as part of the new Haiti should have an environmental investment component.  Such investments would not only help to revive the natural environment, but can provide a platform for sustainable agriculture and even some degree of responsible eco-tourism. Haiti can move from being the barren land of doom and gloom to the thriving land of the living.

Looking to future disasters

There have already been other natural disasters (Chile), and there will surely be many more somewhere, sometime; for the earth is as restless and turbulent as it is beautiful. What we do in Haiti foretells the future not only for that country and its people, but for future disasters in other places and for our quest to secure a good quality of life on planet earth.

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