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Op-ed By Chairman Kerry: What Haitians Can Do For Themselves

WASHINGTON, D.C. –Senator John Kerry (D-MA), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote an op-ed on the one year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti that appears in The Miami Herald today

The full text of the op-ed below: 

What Haitians can do for themselves

By John Kerry

On Jan. 11, 2010, things were looking up for Haiti. U.N. peacekeepers had cracked down on Haiti's notorious gangs and reduced urban violence. Dangerous slums, like Cite Soleil, were safer than they had been in years. President Rene Préval had begun, albeit haltingly, to enact political reforms. Foreign investment and economic growth, spurred by U.S. trade benefits and Haiti's active diaspora, were ticking upwards. In what passes for optimism in Haiti, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive observed that the country was moving ``to get out of misery to get into poverty.''

We know the tragic next chapter to this story. On Jan. 12, literally and figuratively, it all came tumbling down. An earthquake killed upwards of 300,000 people and left over 1.5 million without shelter. The quake set in motion a series of events, including a cholera epidemic, that still has Haiti reeling.

After the quake, we witnessed many noble, generous and courageous efforts by Haitians and outside donors. Together, they prevented the catastrophe from exploding into something worse. Widespread famine, looting, and violence did not occur. Vital health indicators remained stable. Even if just under plastic or canvas, over a million displaced Haitians had protection from wind and rain, and they had access to clean water and latrines.

The once-in-a-generation opportunity to ``build back better,'' however, is unfortunately being lost. Instead of a ``reimagined'' Haitian future, the country has reverted to the same dysfunctional political culture that has tormented its past. Foot-dragging and petty squabbles have precluded solutions to even the most compelling of humanitarian problems.

As a result, 1.3 million Haitians are still living in tents. The cholera epidemic has intensified and unemployment and poverty rates have reached epic proportions -- unemployment rates in the formal sector are up to 90 percent.

With ministries demolished and thousands of government employees killed, the Haitian national leadership had good reasons for its slow response in the early months of the crisis, but President Préval and his government have lagged in coordinating rebuilding efforts. Even when the international community has developed plans and identified funding, the Haitian government has been slow to give the green light to these projects. Major policy priorities, such as creating decentralized clusters of economic activity outside the crowded capital, have had no significant follow-up.

The donor community is not without blame. Haitians have complained, often rightfully, that they have been left out of meetings and decision-making, that approved projects do not conform to agreed priorities, and that the nongovernmental community often pursues duplicative projects without buy-in or support from the government. The United States has provided valuable assistance and leadership, but we have yet to articulate a strategy for contributing to rebuilding.

While there are no magic solutions to these immense challenges, the elements of a way forward are clear.

  • First, the impasse that has delayed the presidential runoff election that was supposed to occur this month must be resolved. Haiti needs a legitimate leader to take office and appoint a skilled team to implement a development vision for the country. The international community must work to change the elites' traditional calculus that a crisis is an opportunity, and we must make clear that alleviating the suffering of the Haitian people is our first priority. Any candidate sabotaging the ongoing efforts by the Organization of American States to solve the election crisis should be disqualified.
  • Second, the donor community must communicate a clear and coherent rebuilding vision and strategy with timelines and benchmarks. The United States can play an important role by publicly articulating an overarching development policy to guide the allocation of over $1 billion in assistance appropriated by the Congress last July. Haitian ownership of any plan is key, but the obstructionism and unwillingness to lead cannot be tolerated any longer.
  • Third, we must recognize and reinforce the remarkable success of the U.N. peacekeeping operation and the newly trained Haitian National Police, both of which have been critical to stability and the rapid decline in crime.
  • Fourth, Haiti must take better advantage of the experience and know-how of its highly skilled and wide-ranging diaspora. The government has many vacancies that émigrés can fill -- at a minimum through a fellows program -- to provide critical support to ministries as they attempt to stand up and reorganize.

Finally, we must recognize that rebuilding Haiti will require a sustained commitment and a long-term partnership. The United States and the international community have done good work in Haiti in the past, and Haiti is better for it today, but the work was piecemeal and short-term. 

Partnership entails commitment and maturity on both sides. Haitians across society -- from the economic and political elite, to the nascent and unsteady civil society, to the masses of poor -- have to realize that our concern for their welfare does not give them leverage to shun our demands for progress. We cannot do the tasks that only they can do.

John Kerry is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.