What the International Community Can Do For Haiti

Temporary shelter.

By Minh-Thu Pham, Director of Public Policy for the Better World Campaign/UN Foundation

I just returned from a visit to Haiti as part of a Congressional delegation to observe the earthquake relief effort and meet with officials from the UN mission, MINUSTAH, and the US Embassy. Despite the renewed awareness of Haiti’s problems, accounts in the press still seem to point to the earthquake as the source of the country’s present woes. But one can quickly see that it is a country that is as much stricken by poverty and instability as it is earthquake-stricken. Indeed, the earthquake destroyed what was already a precarious economic and political situation, albeit one that was on the path to rebuilding.

In fact, several people we spoke with acknowledged the difficulty of distinguishing between earthquake relief and the efforts to address the challenges in Haiti that existed long before this recent disaster. In the displaced persons camps, for instance, some of the people are not there as result of their homes being destroyed but because they did not have adequate homes to begin with. This poses both a moral and policy challenge. One MINUSTAH official said, “If we make them leave or don’t provide them with aid, the message is, I have to get hit by an earthquake to get help.” Oftentimes the people who did not have homes to begin with are the more vulnerable members of Haitian society. To only give aid to those who had homes can exacerbate tensions between the haves and have nots – and these are civil and political fault lines that we must be aware of when handling Haiti’s earthquake relief.

New site that was built to relieve overpopulation at the existing displaced persons camps. People were to arrive the next day.What have been long-standing issues in Haiti – extreme social inequality, ineffective and corrupt government, and political instability – have been exacerbated by the earthquake. Part of the challenge of managing the delivering emergency relief and recovery is understanding and navigating these sensitivities so that the relief effort does not undermine long term stability. The UN’s 17-year presence in Haiti has made it aware of these issues and the importance of allowing Haitians to tackle these problems themselves.

However, in the short term, that is difficult without further support. What was so devastating about the earthquake was that it rendered the government inoperable. On January 12, its ministries of public health, education, transportation, and agriculture all collapsed, as well as the presidential palace. Imagine if that had happened in the United States. While we must address the short-term emergency needs, it’s the long-term support for Haiti’s government that will be the hardest to get right.

On the same day I returned from my trip, the New York Times ran an editorial saying that Haiti needed direct budget support to build ‘a minimally effective Haitian government’ and pay what’s left of its civil servants, teachers, and police. From talking to UN officials, it was clear that just as important was providing capacity building and training to help build a new generation of Haitian civil servants. One way to do this is by harnessing the talents of the Haitian diaspora. I was heartened to hear that the US government is thinking creatively of ways to encourage the tens of thousands of highly skilled Haitians who live abroad, mostly in the United States, to take part in the rebuilding of their own country.

Ultimately, what will make the biggest difference are investments in Haiti’s future – namely, education, training, and employment. These are drivers of sustainable economic growth and stability that the Haitian people want. Several people told me that despite the warnings of impending rain, Haitians will figure out the shelter and rain issues because they are very resourceful. But what they are asking for is education and employment, because they know these are the best tools to help them help themselves. Inside a tent at the new site.  Concern, the Irish NGO, was handling the tent and logistics for this site, and project management was done by MINUSTAH staff.

To that end, the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has worked with Haitian officials to develop a new syllabus that takes into account the trauma that children have suffered and the lost class time due to the earthquake. And the UN has just announced the reopening of many schools, after over 4000 of them were destroyed in the earthquake. And MINUSTAH hopes to have 14,000 Haitian police trained by the end of the year to provide law and order. These are encouraging signs.

For now, American officials we spoke to said that despite its enormous losses, the UN is doing a good job of coordinating the implementation of relief and recovery, and is working closely with the Haitian government. After the earthquake, the MINUSTAH was in shock because 101 UN staff were killed, including the entire top level of its management. But in the last couple of months, the UN has brought in several professional staff who are veterans of its work in Haiti. This has enabled them to bring people in on short notice with the expertise and understanding of the country’s unique needs and history. One UN official told us, “we cannot make decisions about Haiti for Haitians. We meet with the government regularly, and the government decides and the UN implements.”

Critical to implementation is taking into account the country’s long term issues and finding ways to help Haitians help themselves. While emergency aid is important, it’s the combination of capacity building and budget support to the government, the provision of education, training and employment opportunities to the people, and a resolution to the country’s political woes that will help to address the inequalities that make Haiti vulnerable to natural disasters. Only then can it become the self-reliant nation that its people hope it to be.