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A Better Path For Haiti's Recovery

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It appears that Haiti's "15 minutes of fame" are up. With few exceptions, the journalists who flooded the zone following the earthquake are nowhere to be seen. And the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee's harsh criticism of the rebuilding effort six months after the earthquake is a sign that patience is wearing thin. Meanwhile, the lives of Haitians on the ground are still appalling--over a million in tent cities and squatter villages, rain flooding their streets, rape on the rise, too many basic services not restored.

In its recent report, the Senate Committee specifically pointed to the Haitian government's failure to address immediate needs, such as clearing rubble and moving hundreds of thousands of people to durable shelters in time for hurricane season. But the report also recognized the need for a more robust vision for how this island nation will thrive 20 years from now, and it has identified 10 keys for a successful long-term rebuilding effort. These included creating a plan of action, building Haitian government leadership, coordinating international aid and integrating the voices and interests of Haitian people - Haitian civil society - into the rebuilding process. It is this final recommendation that has not received nearly enough attention, from anybody.

The involvement of local civil society--people and organizations who know the needs, understand the culture and can mobilize their nation--will ultimately determine whether Haiti can become a viable state. Recently, American Jewish World Service (AJWS), helped distribute thousands of street lamps to a camp where women were afraid to walk to the bathroom at night because of the widespread and devastating number of rapes. Once the lamps were installed, the women in the camp felt emboldened to form safety patrols, acting as escorts for other women and creating lit pathways to public latrines and washing areas.

One of these women has a 5-year-old daughter who was raped. And, yet, like many others in her camp, she wants to do more. Recently, she was part of a group that told our staff they are tired of having meetings; they want to make change on a sweeping level. Without the attention and support of those in power, though, their hands are tied. When we talk about building a future for Haiti, we must not only consider supplies and money, but how to harness the power and creative energy of the Haitian people.

Here are three principles that should guide the U.S. government and its donor partners in the months and years ahead:

  1. Consult with Haitians from affected populations and sectors. To date, there has been insufficient room at the table for leaders of Haitian civil society. An example of the disconnect this vacuum has created was the recent fiasco in which the Ministry of Agriculture accepted a multi-million dollar donation of seeds from a large multinational corporation. The government did not solicit input from rural development groups who were concerned that this could foster costly, long-term dependence on imported seeds. Thousands of farmers marched in protest and pledged to burn the seeds, embarrassing the government and international donors who should have known better how to proceed.
  2. Decentralize resources from Port-au-Prince to help build rural capacity. Both donors and the Haitian government must make more of an effort to understand the needs of communities outside Port-au-Prince, which are doing a great deal of heavy lifting. Our partner organizations report that almost all aid and rebuilding work is concentrated in the city, but that hundreds of thousands of displaced people are moving into small villages that are hard pressed to feed them, provide meaningful work, offer psychosocial support and integrate children into their schools. These rural grassroots groups want desperately to absorb these refugees, and it is vital that they do so. If they fail and a reverse migration ensues it will only exacerbate the problems with sanitation, shelter, water and personal security in the capital.
  3. Put Haitians back to work. Ultimately, the goal of reconstruction efforts must be to improve the Haitian standard of living by creating meaningful opportunities for work for more Haitians. A study conducted by Oxfam found that the biggest priority for Haitians is not food, water or shelter, but employment. AJWS has been working in Haiti for more than a decade and knows that Haitians are proud and confident and know how to build houses, grow crops and maintain infrastructure; let's use our aid dollars to make that happen. Procuring materials, food and labor from Haitian businesses is the best way to break the cycle of poverty and aid dependency, which had 80 percent of the Haitian population living on less than two dollars per day before the earthquake. Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Robert Corker (TN) recently introduced S. 3317 the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding (HEAR) Act which clearly articulates U.S. aid priorities for the $2 billion committed in US aid to Haiti and emphasizes local procurement. I urge you to sign this petition calling on Congress to pass this bill without delay.

People across America have invested in "building Haiti back better." It is a worthwhile and attainable goal. The Senate is right to be concerned that the Haitian government does not seem to be providing effective leadership, but it is time for the U.S. government to realize that the people who will create a Haiti that can thrive in the 21st century are the Haitians themselves.

Despite a history of slavery, debt and subjugation, the spirit of the Haitian people is one of the greatest in the western hemisphere. Even after this latest catastrophe, Haitians are not waiting for the international community to rebuild for them. Across Haiti, people are trying to regain control of their own lives. Our support for their efforts to organize and rebuild at the grassroots level is the most important act of friendship we can offer.