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Look Beyond the Rubble

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Tons of uncleared debris. Tent cities filled to overflowing. Tens of thousands of children in need of protection. Such harsh images of Haiti -- and stark assessments of the on-going crisis there -- are likely to dominate our thoughts this week, as we mark the somber anniversary of the earthquake that struck one year ago today.

Some of us may feel that the persistence of the devastation represents a failure of the international aid community, or reveals the limitations of humanitarian relief. We might even be tempted to point the finger at Haiti itself, as if it were a black hole of hopelessness, impervious to assistance.

In an emergency of such tragic magnitude, it is natural that we look for villains -- and much harder to look for heroes. But as we frankly assess and learn from what's gone wrong in Haiti, we must also study and build upon what has gone right, and why.

The task has been Herculean -- a humanitarian worst case scenario in one of the world's poorest countries, with massive casualties, multiple catastrophes, the decimation of the nation's civil service, reams of critical records destroyed, and staggering damage to the country's critical infrastructure. The cholera epidemic has now claimed almost 3,500 lives, with nearly 150,000 cases reported to date, and despite our determined efforts, the wave of this deadly disease has not yet crested. Delays in pledged aid have further complicated the recovery effort.

These are enormous, unprecedented obstacles. So as we look back, we should remind ourselves not only that it might have been far worse, but that real progress has been possible, even in such dire circumstances.

Working together at the height of the emergency, Haitian relief organizations, 140 countries, international NGOs and the UN, including UNICEF, trucked 8.3 million litres of clean water every day. Mobile nutrition units have helped to avert widespread acute malnourishment. Nearly two million children and young people have been immunized. Thousands of children have been reunited with their families. Nearly 100,000 children continue to benefit from a network of child-friendly spaces that provide psychosocial care. And nearly 850,000 children are receiving learning materials, both in and out of school.

At best, this is only a start. In Haiti -- as in every emergency -- we can and must do a better job channelling pledged aid to people and communities in greatest need. We need to ensure better coordination between government, the international aid community, and local NGOs. And we need to do more to support communities' efforts to drive their own recovery.

When so much remains to be done, and when so many continue to suffer, it is no time for self-congratulation. But neither should it become an occasion for self-flagellation. To do so risks discouraging those who can still provide help -- to the absolute detriment of the people who so desperately need it. And it is both a denial of the victories achieved and a disavowal of the heroes who are still out there, every day, helping to rebuild lives and restore hope.

Heroes like Marie, a structural engineer and radio host who returned to Haiti after the earthquake, determined to help Haiti's children by rebuilding schools. As she put it, "If we don't give the children the opportunity to go to school, we will lose an entire generation."
Heroes like Frere Francklin Armand, whose commitment to Haiti's children is already the stuff of legend, and whose efforts to provide clean drinking water in the wake of disaster are reaching thousands of people around the country.

Heroes like Mauvette, a registered nurse and former lecturer at a nursing school in Port Au Prince, who narrowly escaped death and now dedicates herself to the famous "Baby Tents" of Mais Gate, where so many newborn lives have been saved.

And young heroes like Judith, a 15-year-old girl who lost her mother and her home in the earthquake, but who has not lost hope. She lives now in a single room with eight relatives, and walks two hours every day to attend school. "Sometimes I want to give up," she says, "but a little voice tells me to keep going." Can we do any less?

There is no denying that today in Haiti, rubble still remains, cholera still kills and political turmoil still imperils progress. But the time has come to look beyond the rubble and the ruin, and to look ahead to a stronger Haiti. One year later, we have a choice -- to wring our hands or to join them together in renewed commitment to help Haitians rebuild their wounded country. For how we can despair, when so many Haitians have not?

This post originally appeared in the Miami Herald on 11 January 2011.