Wyclef and Bill Clinton Visit as Haiti Teeters on the Edge

My third visit to Haiti since the tragedy of the January 12 earthquake coincided with the visits of two much more noteworthy individuals, Bill Clinton and Wyclef Jean. President Clinton was visiting in his dual, but separate, roles as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Haiti and Co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). The Ex-Fugee and renowned entertainer was there to submit his paperwork and announce his candidacy for the Presidency of Haiti. While both of these visitors garnered press attention and created an even greater than normal mess of traffic in Port-au-Prince, neither seemed to cause much of a stir among the Haitian population, or the UN, NGO, and Haitian civil service staffers with whom I was in the country to meet. These groups were all too busy surviving, working, and striving to meet the day-to-day needs of the millions of people in need of services in Haiti, including the approximately 1.5 million living in temporary camps.

For me, and many others who spend time in Haiti I expect, the daily, or hourly, swings from hope to despair create a kind of emotional whiplash. Walking with a police patrol through the isolated Camp Corail, which is about a 25 minute drive –if traffic cooperates – from Port-au-Prince, I was both encouraged and wary. The camp is well-organized with tents in neatly arranged and well-spaced rows. Food and water supplies seemed adequate. Children approached to talk, laugh and kick soccer balls with the multi-national group of Haitian and UN police and Peruvian peacekeepers that guard and patrol the camp, keeping the roughly 6,000 inhabitants safe. The smiles of everyone in the camp provided a sense that while life is difficult, there is a way forward.

But, the questions nag. What would a hurricane, or even a strong storm, do to these neatly ordered tents? Where can these people get work out here, so far from any community or marketplace? Will the new transitional wood frame structures being built, at a hoped-for pace of 5 per day, become permanent? I posed these questions to the committed individuals in the Haitian government, the UN, and NGO communities, and after hearing their realistic but creative and positive ideas, the pendulum swung back to hope.

The camps are just one example of the seemingly countless challenges facing Haiti. As has been said and written numerous times since the earthquake, Haiti was facing daunting development issues before the disaster on January 12 – it is the poorest country in the western hemisphere – and it now faces even more dire circumstances. But, with the tragedy now almost seven months behind and life, however trying, returned to the streets and markets of Port-au-Prince, many Haitians will admit that this may be their best opportunity to make a break from the past and create a better future.

Haitians know that the world’s attention on their small country will not last, particularly if things don’t seem to be going right. However, if the IHRC can convince the people of Haiti, international governments, and NGOs that it is a serious and well-organized decision-making body, then resources will continue to flow into the country. Then, if the committed team I met with at Haiti’s Inter-ministerial Committee for Territorial Management can find a way to integrate their plans with those of the IHRC, then the idea of the much-discussed decentralization of Haiti might become a reality. And so on and so on – success can breed success in Haiti, but there are some key milestones ahead, two of which involve Clinton and Wyclef.

On August 17, President Clinton and his co-chair, Haitian Prime Minister Bellerive, will preside over a critical meeting of the IHRC. The IHRC is expected to lay out its recovery priorities and begin to select projects for funding that best fulfill those priorities. This process must be well-considered and transparent in order to instill confidence in this mixed Haitian and international structure, but tough decisions will have to be made. Not everyone will be happy with each choice that the IHRC makes, but for the sake of the Haitian people, the show must get on the road, and that long road to recovery needs to start with a strong first step.

Wyclef Jean’s potentially big day is November 28, the date for which the national election is scheduled to take place. While there is a reasonable chance that he could be barred from contending the election due to residency requirements, there is also a possibility he could win if allowed to participate. I’ll not go into the merits of the entertainer’s candidacy, as Charles Blow did that well in his August 6 New York Times op-ed. I hope, however, that the voters in Haiti will recognize the importance of good, strong, experienced leadership for the coming years. I don’t have enough familiarity with the announced candidates to say who that should be, but with the amount of potential aid and investment in Haiti, the new government must be competent and transparent.

As I sat in the American Airlines departure area discussing the hope vs. despair roller coaster with a colleague, I looked around at the crowd of Haitians, Haitian diaspora, UN staffers, NGO workers, US military personnel, and faith-based organizations (you can distinguish all of these groups by their “uniforms”, whether military fatigues or matching t-shirts), and thought that if Haiti can keep the attention and confidence of these people for the next several years, and it will be years, that hope is warranted and will win the day. The world is rooting and working for Haiti, but we all have to stay in the game together, and for the long haul, for its people to have a chance at a better future.

Image: IFRC

Robert Skinner is the associate director of the UN Foundation’s New York office. The opions expressed are his own.