Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010

What Haiti Needs

Hillary and I went to Haiti for the first time in December 1975. A banker friend of ours had some business down there. He had built up a lot of frequent-flyer miles and called and said he was giving us a delayed honeymoon. We were married in October, and we went down there in December. Both of us just kind of fell in love with the country, and I have kept up with it ever since.

Why is Haiti so special to me? Haiti is completely unique in our hemisphere because of its history and culture. There are other French Caribbean islands, but none of them have Haiti's particular Creole influence. None of them feature Haiti's distinctive mix of West African religious and cultural influences, the most visible of which is the persistence of the voodoo faith, which is practiced alongside Christianity. Unfortunately, ever since the first slave revolt by Haitians in 1791, the country has been beset by abuses caused from within and without. It has never been able to fulfill its potential as a nation.

But I think it can. Haitian immigrants do very well when they come to America or France or Canada. I've always thought that given the right organization and support, Haiti could become a self-sustaining and very successful country. I still believe that.

In order to stave off a disaster and get Haiti on its feet again, the world needs to respond in rapid and coordinated fashion. The focus first must be on search and rescue, and on meeting people's basic human needs. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, where just one building was bombed and we had all the help in the world, it still took several days before all the living and dead had been recovered. There were survivors who were recovered many hours later in the rubble.

We need to get as much equipment as we can into Haiti. The military is sending in helicopters, and there will probably be a need for it to supply some logistics and communications support. The U.S. is going to have to carry a lot of the load there early on. But it's very important that the U.S., which is so pivotal to this emergency period, work very closely with the U.N. peacekeeping mission stationed in Haiti, which is very well organized and is operating well. In fact, the U.N. system has already swung into action: it has offered $10 million in immediate emergency relief and organized food relief through the World Food Programme. There are hundreds of thousands of people that are going to be coming out of there alive that have to be cared for; the World Health Organization is trying to meet the health care needs.

The international relief effort that followed the Asian tsunami of 2004 offers some lessons that can be applied in Haiti. First of all, there has to be national buy-in by the U.S. There has to be a national vision, and I think we have that. Secondly, coordination is really important both within the U.N. and among all the donor countries and nongovernmental groups. There are 10,000 nongovernmental organizations working in Haiti, the highest number per capita in the world except for India. We've got to all work together toward a common goal. We have to relentlessly focus on trying to build a model that will be sustainable, so we don't plant a bunch of trees and then revert to deforestation, or adopt a program to bring power to the country that can't be sustained, or adopt an economic strategy that is going to wither away in two years.

I'm trying now to get organized to make sure not only that we get the emergency aid that Haiti needs but also that donors come through on their pre-existing commitments. We need to keep the private sector involved. Once we deal with the immediate crisis, the development plans the world was already pursuing have to be implemented more quickly and on a broader scale. I'm interested in just pressing ahead with it.

Haiti isn't doomed. Let's not forget, the damage from the earthquake is largely concentrated in the Port-au-Prince area. That has meant a tragic loss of life, but it also means there are opportunities to rebuild in other parts of the island. So all the development projects, the agriculture, the reforestation, the tourism, the airport that needs to be built in the northern part of Haiti — everything else should stay on schedule. Then we should simply redouble our efforts once the emergency passes to do the right sort of construction in Port-au-Prince and use it to continue to build back better.

Before this disaster, Haiti had the best chance in my lifetime to fulfill its potential as a country, to basically escape the chains of the past 200 years. I still believe that if we rally around them now and support them in the right way, the Haitian people can reclaim their destiny.

Clinton is the U.N. special envoy for Haiti.