03/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

MLK2010: Harnessing the Heritage of Haiti

This year, MLK matters more than ever.

We all know the oft-quoted maxim, Do unto others. The modern notion of volunteerism epitomizes this phrase. Some people will pitch in today to support groups in their local communities. Others will use services like All for Good, VolunteerMatch or BeExtra to discover opportunities. However one opts to help, such actions have particular resonance on MLK'10 when we consider the recent devastation of Haiti, a tragedy that some have called Katrina to the 100th power.

I first visited Haiti in 1994, memorably flying in via a small plane that landed on the dirt field that doubled as the national airstrip. I was serving as a member of a US government mission. We spent almost two weeks in country, supporting a broad initiative to facilitate trade and investment to the island nation. Like a battered fighter, Haiti was trying to regain its feet after dictatorial misrule and brutal unrest. We hoped that a dose of commerce would incentivize the poorest country in the Western hemisphere to awake from decades of doldrums.

Haiti had ambitious beginnings. The country was founded in the crucible of a successful slave rebellion. Yet it has struggled enormously since the glory of its early days. Today, its forests depleted and its resources scarce, the small, stricken nation has little to draw upon other than the entrepreneurial instincts of its people and the regular remittances from its prosperous Diaspora.

Yet, unlike modern nation-states such as Israel and Singapore, Haiti has not yet emerged as a stable, successful member of the family of nations. Its lack of development rarely caught the attention of fickle Western elites or even well-meaning humanitarians. Its lack of any real civil or physical infrastructure simply seemed to consign the country to a slower pace of development. Today, however, the many gaps have exacerbated the current catastrophe, a humanitarian disaster whose human impact more than rivals our twin tragedies of 9/11 and Katrina. Estimates vary, but reports suggest that the initial death toll could exceed 50,000 people. It is more staggering to imagine the looming fate of hundreds of thousands who now suffer without the most basic needs: water, food, medicine. The damage is almost inestimable.

However, it is always darkest just before the dawn

Aid is just starting to pour in. With the help of our ex-presidents and Hollywood, this surge hopefully will last for some time. And it should. Yet I believe the country can pull itself out of the current chaos and forge a new path forward, despite this rush of philanthropy rather than as a result.

This will not be easy. In fact, it could take generations. But it is essential that we and the West step forward to serve and help the Haitian people - yet do so by empowering the Haitian people with the tools to fulfill their own limitless potential.

This does not mean that we should stand down from the current wave of assistance. In fact, we should increase the pace. As its biggest neighbor and the most philanthropic country in the world, the US has a special role to play. Already, the American people have showed an extraordinary willingness to serve. For examples, millions of dollars have been raised through SMS-driven donations since the earthquake. At this moment, such money matters most as it is the fuel that enables NGOs to act.

However, we must recognize that our service must extend beyond donations and grants. At a time when our own deficit is soaring and the US faces innumerable challenges, we must unlock our creative capacities and cast new lines to help Haiti. Indeed, the recovery could provide a singular opportunity to move past simply shipping pallets of rice or bags of clothes to Port-au-Prince. Instead, it is long overdue to model a new approach -- to help the people help themselves. We need to champion tactics that shift beyond one-time welfare and plant the seeds that will nourish a local culture of self-reliance.

There are many possible examples. Instead of simply sending MSF or ARC volunteers to Haiti, why not create a program to facilitate Haitian matriculation into US medical schools and nursing institutions. Rather than simply sending innumerable bags of grain to the people, why not share new agriculture techniques to educate and empower Haitian farmers. Instead of sending consultants to sit in Haitian ministries, why not initiate leadership development programs for Haitian public servants at world-class American institutions like the Kennedy School or the Aspen Institute.

Rather than solely seeking to strengthen the Haitian economy through expanded trade between our corporations and their large companies, why not prioritize low-interest loans to cultivate a new generation of small enterprises across the country. Instead of offering one-time grants, why not issue patient capital and take long-term equity positions in Haitian firms. Imagine if popular websites like Kiva or Kickstarter created Haiti-specific versions of their services. Let's do more than rebuild the Haitian market as a destination for American goods: instead, let's open the reservoirs of American creativity to help Haiti harness its own heritage and recapture its original promise.

Dr. King knew that service took many forms. However, the civil right leader never veered from a course rooted in dignity and equality. The money is crucial now, but ultimately, if we can offer the amazing people of Haiti a path forward based on self help and shared values, we truly can celebrate the ideals of Dr. King. As I think back to my time on the island, I know that the self-restoration of Haitian dignity is a goal that the world entire should strive to support.