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Madison Smartt Bell

Madison Smartt Bell

Posted: January 21, 2010 10:23 AM

Let Haitians Rebuild Haiti

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For too long before this last natural disaster, Haiti has been full of hands with nothing to do, and a lot of those hands have picked up guns. In the pressing need to rebuild the capital and other regions leveled by the earthquake, those hands could be put to more constructive use. It will make a great positive difference for the country if they are.

By nothing to do I mean no employment; it's not like Haitians just sit around. Most of them, the vast majority, spend every day figuring out food for themselves and their families for that single day. Better than most, they understand the line from Scripture, We are not promised tomorrow. That urgent struggle for day to day survival makes for mental as well as physical stress. As a friend of mine told me a couple of years back, It takes a lot of transactions in your head to make twenty dollars.

I have known this man, now pushing thirty, since he was in his middle teens. He is trained and capable as a guide, driver, plumber, electrician, mechanic, small-engine and air-conditioning repairmen. Like most of the young men of Haiti, he can almost never find any work in any of his numerous trades, though not for want of trying.

It's not to be denied that Haiti has internal problems. True, as David Brooks put it in a recent New York Times op-ed, there are some "progress-resistant cultural influences" (though I think it is gratuitously insulting for him to count the religion of the Haitian majority as one of them) as well as "high levels of social mistrust." But the straight-up paternalism Brooks recommends as a solution is likely to lose the whole opportunity. And yes, there is an opportunity here.

There's money to be made in rebuilding a destroyed infrastructure, although, since Haiti has no oil, it's not the same kind of money some thought we were going to make in Iraq. However, we do have a chance to repeat the same mistake. Those who followed the military into Iraq wanted all the goodies for themselves, and so they imported all the labor. Iraqi young men, recently mustered out of Saddam's army, were tacitly advised to sit on their hands and starve. They started kidnapping and killing civilian contractors because they had, reasonably enough under suchcumstances, identified them as the real enemy.

Before the earthquake, Haiti's persistent insecurity problem had come very close to being solved by intelligent, tightly focused cooperation between Préval's government, the Haitian National Police, and the military forces of the U.N. mission, MINUSTAH. This progress is real, so real that the U.S. State Department recently reduced its cautions against travel to Haiti to the lowest level since 1995. There is no absolute reason for that gain to be lost now, although it might be. Two factors have persistently driven the Haitian insecurity problem. The turmoil of the past ten years put more guns into the country than ever before, and a great many of these guns are in the hands of young men who have no other meal ticket.

Rebuilding Haitian infrastructure could also rebuild the Haitian economy if the builders do one simple thing, hire Haitians. They are strong, quick-witted, adept at making something out of nothing, willing -- I mean desperate -- to work, and who could possibly be better motivated than they are right now.

Hire Haitians.

Hire Haitians. I feel the need to say it many times because insofar as the rebuilders come from the United States, where there is a considerable unemployment problem right now, there will be a temptation to grab all the goodies for ourselves. It will be a disaster if we do. Haiti is not considered an "existential threat" to the United States, but it's a whole lot closer than the countries that are.

One day a couple of years ago a friend and I accepted the help of a couple of young men to cut brush in aid of a survey. They slashed into the job, like demons. I will never forget the single-minded ferocity in their faces. It was so inspirational that I picked up a machete and tried it myself, but in the broiling summer heat I lasted about ten minutes. The young men who accomplished the real job were not expecting to be paid, but had volunteered, as my friend explained, so as not to pass a regrettable day. Yes, I did pay them fairly for their work, but within a week I was gone from Haiti, leaving them with their machetes, and no other prospects.