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Hungry for change in Haiti

Amid riots and political upheaval, Haiti needs the right kind of relief.

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With the vast majority of Haiti's 8.5 million trying to survive on just $2 a day, eking out even an extra penny is as difficult as the government's challenge of providing electricity – or potable water, inaccessible to 75 percent of the population. It is the poorest country in the hemisphere.

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It wasn't always this way. Haiti used to be the lushest island in the region; rice and coffee were major exports. But political turmoil, mismanagement, lack of planning, deforestation, and natural disasters have taken their toll. Today, less than 2 percent of the country is forested.

The international community has a stake in Haiti because 99 percent of Haiti's budget comes from abroad. The US cares because Haiti is just 500 miles from Florida. When things turn sour there, it becomes a domestic problem here.

There are things that we could, and should, do differently. For immediate relief, Washington should grant temporary protected status (TPS) to Haitians living in the United States. TPS is awarded to undocumented immigrants from countries experiencing armed conflict and environmental disasters: it requires nothing more than the president's signature. Citizens from seven countries currently profit from TPS, but Haitians have never benefited from this status. This is ironic, given that this month the US banned government officials from traveling to Haiti and advised the 19,000 American citizens living there to leave.

Haiti has 2,500 miles of roads, only a quarter of which are paved. Rather than pay consultants a daily stipend that exceeds a Haitian's yearly income, send technicians to tarmac roads that will facilitate the distribution of locally grown food. Put in an irrigation system that will diminish damage from seasonal flooding. Stock cargo containers with fertilizers and seeds, not used clothing. Teach residents desperate for work how to set up purification systems for garbage that can be landscaped rather than dumped into the surrounding waters.

Encourage the Haitian diaspora to return – 80 percent of college-educated Haitians live abroad. Put their expertise to use. Similarly, invite the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who mobilized poor African women to plant more than 30 million trees, to work with Haiti's agricultural ministry. Reforestation is as much about understanding the culture as it is planting.

You can't pick the fruit if you don't start with the root, a Haitian proverb says. It's time to get Haiti on its feet. If not, the new government will have no better chance of succeeding than the one it just replaced.

Kathie Klarreich, author of "Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou, and Civil Strife in Haiti," has covered Haiti as a journalist for more than 20 years.