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Hurricane just the latest misfortune heaped on Haiti

Largely out of sight and out of mind, Haiti is only a topic in conjunction to some misfortune. Unfortunately for its inhabitants, that’s an all-too-common occurrence.

When Hurricane Matthew tore through the Caribbean last week, Haiti was the hardest hit. More than 1,000 people were killed, thousands more injured and large parts of the population displaced. Some 1.5 million people are at risk, not least from an outbreak of cholera, for which the World Health Organization is issuing a million vaccines.

The hurricane has caused extensive damage to the island nation that is still recovering from a devastating 2010 earthquake. Torrential rainfall and high winds have caused severe flooding, washed away bridges, and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes. The United Nations this week launched an appeal for US$119 million to bring life-saving assistance to 750,000 people in southwest Haiti.

“Hurricane Matthew has resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake at a time when the country is already facing an increase in the number of cholera cases, and severe food insecurity and malnutrition,” it said in issuing the appeal.

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 it 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 damage from Hurricane Matthew may be even more catastrophic than the 2010 earthquake that literally tore the place apart, itself a new level of devastation for the country.

The widespread ruin is tied to the nation’s woeful history. Buildings were not of a standard to withstand a natural disaster. 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 a basket case.

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. At times, the election of populists such as Jean-Bertrand Aristide were seen as a victory for democracy, a chance for the vast amounts of poor to see a more level playing field, but things didn’t pan out as planned, leading to more unrest.

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

Given the country is still recovering from an earthquake almost seven years ago, the hurricane demonstrates the international community has to be in it for the long haul, as there are no short-term solutions.

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