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The real issue is Haiti’s long-term prospects

All of the efforts in Haiti are directed at immediate humanitarian aid, as is appropriate. Before long, however, some longer-term planning will be needed to help put the country back on track – restoring it to what is was doesn’t make much sense, as what it was is not what anybody wants it to be.

The poorest country in the hemisphere, Haiti has seen many disasters in its history, including hurricanes, floods and landslides brought on by massive deforestation (take a look at satellite photos online to see the marked contrast between Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic). But the earthquake that literally tore the place apart last week has been more devastating than anything before it.

Current estimates put the number of dead at more than 200,000, with 1.5 million people left homeless. Much of the infrastructure has been laid to waste.

The widespread devastation is tied to the nation’s woeful history. Buildings were not of a standard to withstand a natural disaster such as the magnitude-7 quake that struck Jan. 12. The government, largely disrupted by the emergency, had no resources to deal with what happened. A legacy of colonial rule, foreign intervention, U.S. occupation, aggressive neo-liberal economics, ruthless dictators and political infighting have left Haiti in a deplorable state.

The most recent low point came following the ouster of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a 2004 rebellion. The first to be democratically elected, Aristide had been president on three occasions, twice removed by a coup. Instability was the order of the day following the rebellion, with corruption rife and suffering reaching new levels.

Under new president René Préval, a longtime Aristide ally, the situation had improved somewhat. The country relies on UN troops and police officers to maintain order, with more now on the way to assist with disaster relief efforts.

For Timothy Donais, a professor in the Global Studies department at Wilfrid Laurier University, what flows from the massive international response to the earthquake could help decide Haiti’s future. Despite all the problems there, he remains optimistic about its prospects, at least under circumstances different from what’s happened in the past.

“Given a sustained period of stability, there is hope for Haiti. It’s not a hopeless place, not a basket case,” he says.

The rub comes in achieving that stability. It will mean less interference, but plenty of financial support from the international community, allowing Haitians to build a viable economy where none has ever really existed.

Donais’ area of study includes post-conflict peace-building, which includes research into what happens following war and strife in such places as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Haiti.

Having first travelled to Haiti for research in 2005, he saw marked improvements on his next visit in 2007, thanks to the work being done by the Préval government. With the president unable to run again when his term expires, Donais is concerned about what might happen to even those small reforms.

“The big test over the next year is the next round of elections. They were supposed to be held next month, but I’d guess they’re going to be postponed.”

In a country where a small minority is very wealthy, and the vast majority live in extreme poverty, an elitist system developed whereby inequity was widespread. Aristide’s election was seen as a victory for democracy, a chance for the vast numbers of poor to see a more level playing field, but things didn’t pan out as planned, leading to more unrest.

With some much-needed international attention on Haiti, and the aid money flowing in, there’s an opportunity to help residents reconstruct not only the infrastructure but the system of government.

“There’s a need to rebuild the Haitian state, which seems to have collapsed along with the buildings in the capital,” he says.

Both the physical reconstruction and a new government model will take time – a long-term commitment is required, he adds.

The international community has to be in it for the long haul, as there are no short-term solutions – “It has to be measured in decades.”

“There’s no shortage of good ideas. The question is, who has the wherewithal to … see it through?”

New infrastructure – buildings, water supplies, electrical systems – will demand a considerable amount of foreign money. Leonel Fernandez, president of neighbouring Dominican Republic, estimates Haiti would need $10 billion over five years.

Just as important, however, says Donais, is the need to invest in basic social services, particularly health care and education. Only with that kind of “key economic development” will Haiti be able to develop a sustainable economic system.

Even before the earthquake, Haiti was so poor it didn’t have the basics to form a viable economic system, and it couldn’t provide the basics without an economy to sustain itself – “it’s caught in a Catch-22 situation.”

If history is any guide, the kind of change he advocates is not the most likely outcome of this latest relief effort.

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