Haitians must help shape their own future

Rebuilding after the earthquake should not be a job only for the international community.

Notice that US and other foreign officials visiting Haiti have bent over backward to say they are working with the government of this earthquake-shaken country – not controlling it.

“We are working to back them up, but not to supplant them,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on her way to Haiti last Saturday.

The distinction is important for several reasons. History, for one. The US, despite its proximity, has had an uneasy and unsteady relationship with its Caribbean neighbor over the decades. Its record of intervention and assistance is mixed.

At the same time, Haiti’s government, led by President René Préval, deserves international recognition of its legitimacy – even as a small core of government ministers, overwhelmed by the scale of destruction and its own losses, attempts to function from a police headquarters building near the damaged airport.

Most important, though, if Haiti is to turn from its pattern of extreme poverty and political upheaval, Haitians must help shape their own future. As tragic as the earthquake was, it also presents an opportunity to redirect and rebuild. Success is more likely if Haitians themselves have a stake in it.

The media are full of inspiring stories about individual initiative: people pulling others from rubble with their bare hands, assembling makeshift shelters, strategizing on how to bring back their businesses. But it is not too soon to think about Haiti’s needs after the recovery-and-relief phase is over, and how to involve the Haitian government and people in rebuilding.

Admirably, that very thought process is already under way. Over the weekend, Mr. Préval met with international donors in the Dominican Republic, which borders Haiti. Dominican President Leonel Fernández suggested that a five-year, $10-billion plan would be needed. Next week, foreign ministers – and the Haitian prime minister – will gather in Canada to discuss a rebuilding strategy. Then back to the Dominican Republic for more planning in April.

By virtue of the vast destruction, reconstruction will have to be vast in scope, covering everything from health and education to agriculture. As recently as the 1980s, Haitian farmers met nearly all of the country’s rice needs. Now most rice is imported. Haitians can be put to work rebuilding infrastructure that withstands the next earthquake and the frequent hurricanes that blast the island.

It is encouraging to hear Préval, who has served in high posts in Haiti’s government for nearly 20 years, say that Haiti must “reinforce the democratic institutions.” Indeed, graft stains his government, and will be a key issue as Préval, donor nations, and nongovernmental groups look for ways to assure accountability without hampering speedy follow-through on aid. One hopeful sign is that before the earthquake, Préval strongly supported trials of security officials accused of human rights abuses, a first in Haiti.

Although foreign governments have shown respect and deference to the Haitian president and other government officials, not so the Haitian people, who complain bitterly that their government is nowhere to be seen in this crisis. The Préval administration must address this, and quickly.

“We are overwhelmed,” Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive explained to The Washington Post. “We are not only ourselves victims of the disaster, but also do not have the capacity to do this on our own.”

He is correct on one level, that the government is as overwhelmed as the population and needs help. Préval not only lost the presidential palace, but his private home.

Yet political leaders who accept the label of victim for themselves will find it hard to win the respect of citizens. Is it too much to ask of the Haitian president, as disadvantaged as he is, to visit the large refugee camp that has sprouted near the palace and encourage his fellow Haitians? So far, he has spoken mostly to the foreign media.

Haiti’s people and its government need sizable and steady help from the international community. But they must also determine their own future.

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