Big challenges in Haiti

By Raymond C. Offenheiser
Renaude Joseph from the Civil Protection Committee talks to residents in Casadeux, near Tabarre in Port-au-Prince, where flash flooding in 2007 caused a landslide taking with it a number of homes.

Haiti is facing a significant challenge in the recovery from this tremendous earthquake. It will not be easy, but the good news is that there is tremendous support from the international community that will enable Haiti to come out of this hopefully in better shape than it was before the quake.

For centuries, Haiti has been a country of great inequality, with human rights violations, and endemic and massive poverty. More recently, its governments have been trying to change some of these patterns and address the lack of educational opportunities and lack of health care. It was making considerable progress just as the quake hit.

As we go forward, one of the major challenges for Haiti will be creating a social compact among Haitians of all social and class levels, to commit to re-conceiving Haiti as a nation and taking advantage of the willingness of the international community to support a new Haiti.

Respond to the housing and services challenges

What are some of the particular challenges in the short and medium term? There is a tremendous need to address housing and basic services for Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas. A lot of thinking is going in to how communities can be resettled in temporary housing and whether some of their houses can be restored and made livable.
There is thinking going on about what Port-au-Prince should look like in the future. It may be very much like New Orleans, which now has two third of the population it had before hurricanes Katrina and Rita. There is a sense in Haiti that perhaps Port-au-Prince may have been too big for the geography of hills and wetlands where it is located.

As a consequence of the earthquake, many citizens have moved to other cities around the country. They are seeking educational opportunities, access to health services, and temporary housing with relatives. One of the questions is whether the international community-- and the Haitian government, which has expressed interest in doing this--will assist people in resettling in other locations. Decreasing the overall population in Port-au-Prince would probably be a good outcome for the city.

Build a dynamic economy

The other question about rebuilding: Is Haiti going to actually create a dynamic economy and offer the jobs its citizens desperately need?  There’s been some effort to build textile manufacturing operations in Haiti that are employing some 25,000 people now. This may be a good start. It may resemble what is happening in Bangladesh, where in the early ‘90s there were 50 garment factories, and today there are 4,000. Could Haiti, given its proximity to the US market, become an export platform for garments? 

Could it become a site for a successful tourism industry? Next door in the Dominican Republic you can actually see and feel the impact of tourism dollars on the economy. The restoration of the capital Santo Domingo has been driven by tourism dollars. Haiti has historic monuments and places of interest that could be restored for tourists.

Most importantly, the agriculture sector needs investment. And [Haiti’s] ecology needs to be improved, its hills reforested, and its watersheds protected and improved. The agriculture sector needs better links to markets internally and improved infrastructure, but also links to supply chains in US markets and in Latin America and the Caribbean in ways that will tap in to its potential for producing rice, coffee, sugar cane, rum, and dried tropical fruits. Haiti could produce these and derive great benefits for its citizens—if we can make the appropriate investments.

Civil society must play a critical role

One of the critical players will be Haitian civil society. Over the last 30 years, civil society and the not-for-profit sector have grown substantially. During the Duvalier years it was very difficult to organize any sort of not-for-profit or small, grassroots peasant organization. But more recently there has been an explosion of these types of organizations and they play a dynamic role in the country. You can see that in the emergency response. Oxfam is interacting with many of them on the ground: Settlement areas have been organized by church groups and Haitian organizations, very effectively.

But going forward, the Haitian people need to be a part of the re-imagining of their country. Tens of thousands of Haitians have struggled for decades to build their country and rid it of poverty. It is going to be critical for their presence to be felt in the way the international community designs the investment programs that are for the benefit of Haitian citizens. There will be donor meetings in the coming months, but there will also be civil society meetings, prep conferences, and comprehensive plans developed by civil society organizations as input to the donor meetings. Civil society needs to organize and prepare the way forward and become a full participant in these events.  

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