NEW YORK — When the subject of post-earthquake Haiti comes up, people often talk about getting back to normal. But for Haiti, where ‘normal’ was a series of crises, the goal must be to rebuild better.
In a panel discussion last week at UNFPA, experts attempted to answer the question of how to solve the problems caused by the earthquakes while also addressing broader and deeply entrenched problems that Haiti has been grappling with for years. Panelists included Elisabeth Lindenmayer of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, Garry Conille, Chief of Staff of UN Office of Special Envoy to Haiti, Marcela Suazo, Director of UNFPA’s Latin and Caribbean regional office, and Natalie Caruso of the women’s rights organization MADRE.
Addressing the issues in parallel
Panelists emphasized the enormous hardships Haiti faces apart from the earthquakes. Cyclones, hurricanes, and rioting due to food crises were among the challenges dealt with in 2008 alone. Under colonial rule, Ms. Lindenmayer pointed out, the country was divided into the government and the slaves. In the postcolonial world, only the label has changed as the country has been divided into the elite and the poor. There needs to be a middle ground, she said.
Though it’s simpler to raise awareness for Haiti in terms of emergency relief, Garry Conille raised the point that all the problems – poverty, government corruption, a need for jobs – must be addressed in parallel. It would be easy to shelve the problems of job creation and poverty, but taking them all into account together is the only way to ensure that Haiti progresses, he said.
Helping to restore the government does, however, create delays, Mr. Conille acknowledged. Moving the displaced people to a safe location now that the rainy season is starting, for example, will take time and effort. Though restoring governance may seem less consequential, less, simply focusing on the direct effects of the earthquake would just be putting a band aid on the real problems, panelists agreed.
Self sufficiency: One step at a time
Moreover, it’s also tempting to try to solve the problems for Haiti. However, ultimately, progress will only come when the country is self sufficient, according to panelists. Ms. Lindenmayer spoke about how moved she was simply seeing Haitian police officers when she was there shortly before the earthquake. A country with a police force is a fact that most would take for granted, but for Haiti they represent an ability to take care of its own problems.
Similarly, Natalia Curoso of MADRE spoke of the ways in which women are particularly vulnerable during a time of crisis. Yet she also stressed that we must not see women solely as victims, but also as agents of empowerment. One reason why women are so vulnerable is that they are responsible for so many: children, the elderly, the disabled. Yet this responsibility, as well as their knowledge of the community is what marks them as a resource, not simply as passive victims.
Using the earthquake as an opportunity not to simply help the Haitians, but to encourage them to develop the tools they need to govern independently is key for the country’s long-term growth, panelists agreed.