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Outside editorial: End Haiti's despair

Posted: Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In March 1983, Pope John Paul II delivered a moving sermon in Haiti. Denouncing the "division, injustice, excessive inequality, degradation, misery, hunger and fear" he found in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, the pontiff made an impassioned plea for change.

Undeniably, some things are better - the hated Duvalier dictatorship is gone - but the bigger picture remains grim. Neither revolving-door governments nor the $1 billion in aid given annually by well-meaning donors has made a significant difference in raising the intolerably low standard of living.

The donor's conference this week in New York is the last, best chance to fix that - to allow Haiti to escape from its misery once and for all.

Reacting to the calamitous Jan. 12 earthquake, dozens of countries and multilateral organizations are coming together to pledge long-term assistance. They must not blow it.

-Accountability. The biggest challenge is not only making donors live up to their commitments - Haiti seeks $11.5 billion over 18 months - but to make sure it is well spent and properly managed.

Haiti and its donors have to create an effective partnership so that all parties can monitor spending for reconstruction. The agency created by Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami offers a good model with mechanisms to prevent corruption and ensure transparency and accountability.

Haiti's government must embrace the partnership notion or else it will fail to win international cooperation.

• Grassroots. The reconstruction plan must be community-driven. Haiti cannot build a strong society and strong institutions unless its people are behind the recovery plan. They must be given a voice and a stake in the outcome.

• Nuts and bolts. Virtually all aspects of Haiti's economy and society need to be rebuilt from the ground up. Among the priorities: Rebuilding basic infrastructure, including hospitals, telecommunications and government buildings; housing for both the near and long terms; a new, sustainable road and transportation network; a reliable energy grid that improves generation, transmission and distribution.

• Education. It deserves special attention. The government's call for 4,000 "shelters" to start a new school year should be heeded. This number barely begins to meet the need, but it represents a good start that needs to be free of corruption.

Children must be allowed to remain in school without having to pay under-the-table fees - a common practice that contributes to illiteracy. The government's massive failure to operate a real public education system has to be remedied. The prevailing system exacerbates class divisions and dooms hopes for creating a functioning democracy.

• Decentralization. Port-au-Prince is not only the capital, but the source of some 85 percent of the state's revenues. That alone - plus, the danger of future earthquakes - is a reason to promote economic and social development in other parts of the country. This should remain a central goal of reconstruction.

• Diaspora. As many as 2 million Haitians live abroad. They send home $1.9 billion in remittances - about 30 percent of Haiti's pre-earthquake GDP and double the official aid flows. One of the best ways foreign governments - including France, Canada and the United States - can help Haiti is to allow significant increases in the number of Haitians admitted into their countries. They will be a strong and unending source of help for Haiti.

Haiti can help its own case by allowing dual citizenship, thus forging closer bonds with its growing diaspora and giving its members a stake in Haiti's future.

"Something must change here," Pope John Paul II declared more than a quarter century ago. Its people responded by overthrowing the Duvalier dynasty, but the vision of a new and better Haiti has never been fulfilled.

Now is the time. Only if Haiti's people and their partners around the world work together constructively can Haiti have a realistic hope of achieving prosperity and democracy by 2020. The dream can come true, but the obstacles are many and the moment is fleeting. This opportunity will not come again.



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