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Envisioning a new Haiti

Outlines of hope emerge from the country's earthquake disaster. When experts think outside the box – what do they believe would really save the nation?

By / Correspondent, with Sara Miller Llana/ Staff Writer, Photos by Mary Knox Merrill/ Staff Photographer / January 27, 2010

An aerial view of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with thousands of people living in a tent city (foreground). Picture taken from U.S. Navy helicopter, January 15, 2009.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor


Washington; and Port-au-Prince, Haiti

There is a grim joke about Haiti among international development workers. This country of coups and hurricanes and now a catastrophic earthquake, they say, has had 17 successful peacekeeping missions.

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The number is exaggerated – since 1993 there have been only five United Nations interventions in the country – but it still gets at a truism when it comes to donor relationships with Haiti. From 1990 to 2003, Haiti received more than $4 billion in international aid; since 2004, the United States alone has given more than $600 million to improve governance, security, and economic recovery. Yet during this time, Haiti has gotten poorer and remains the most impoverished and unstable country in the Western Hemisphere.

Now, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake has flattened Port-au-Prince, the capital city, killing tens of thousands. Will it also shake the foundations of how the international community interacts with this vibrantly proud, yet desperately poor, nation? Could there be hope in this tragedy, a chance for those working for Haiti to throw off the strictures of political correctness and diplomatic etiquette and do what they really think could work?

Indeed, says Arielle Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian-American development contractor who has spent years working in Haiti and who lost family members in the quake, "Nothing is standing. None of the offices. None of the government buildings. This is an opportunity."

The Monitor spoke to two dozen scholars, aid workers, environmentalists, and diplomats with deep roots in Haiti about their blue-sky visions in this dark time. They looked beyond the immediate disaster and outside the frustrating box of financial and political restraints that have foiled years of efforts to help Haiti, to prescribe their own solutions for the country's problems.

The spectrum of ideas is broad and controversial, including everything from turning Haiti into a UN protectorate to paying reparations for the US's crippling treatment of the newly independent, black-led republic in the early 1800s.

Most of these concepts would usually prove too contentious in most development circles. But for Haiti, these are extraordinary times.

In the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake, many in Haiti saw their government as missing in action and international aid workers as their best hope for food, water, and medical care.

"They can give Haiti 100 percent to foreigners," says Camille Lacombe, an 81-year-old retired factory worker in Port-au-Prince. "The Haitian people cannot rebuild the way we need. They steal too much money."

Some even echo that sentiment for the long term, beyond the immediate crisis. "We need a Marshall Plan," says Pierre Boncy, a physician at the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince. "We are on our knees. We do not have time to discuss who is in command."

The Haitian street in recent decades has been pro-American and welcoming of the largest aid donor to the country, though at tense political junctures Haitian leadership has had plenty of criticism of insensitivity to local realities and what seem like quid pro quos that go along with aid. But gauging Haitian sentiment at the moment, Dr. Boncy says that if the US comes to Haiti providing aid and generating jobs there will be no backlash: "It is a black country, and it could be perceived as a white occupation. There could be some issues. But if they come here and build, and the Haitian worker is working, it will be OK. In other countries [Americans] are fighting evil versus good. It does not give a good perception. Here it will be for security."