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The Haiti disaster could easily turn into a story of triumph

By Vision Reporter

Added 26th January 2010 03:00 AM

CORNY as it may sound, the earthquake that devastated Haiti has also presented it with the best opportunity to create a just, equitable and more prosperous country than the one that existed before the quake hit two weeks ago. At the time, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with

CORNY as it may sound, the earthquake that devastated Haiti has also presented it with the best opportunity to create a just, equitable and more prosperous country than the one that existed before the quake hit two weeks ago. At the time, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with

Opiyo Oloya

CORNY as it may sound, the earthquake that devastated Haiti has also presented it with the best opportunity to create a just, equitable and more prosperous country than the one that existed before the quake hit two weeks ago. At the time, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

The 2008 GDP per capita figure for Haiti is a paltry $1300 compared to $47,500 for the United States of America and $39,200 for Canada. The infrastructure was falling apart with schools barely functioning, and roads pockmarked by potholes.

Moreover, Haiti owed a whooping total of $1.817b in debts to various international lending agencies including the Paris Club of 19 wealthy nations. This would translate to a debt of $201 for every Haitian man, woman and child. It would take the average Haitian earning $2 per day decades, maybe forever, to pay off this debt. But the earthquake could potentially change all of that.

Perhaps it is because of Haiti’s proximity to the most powerful nation on earth. Or it could be because of the ‘Obama factor’ who, as the first Black president of the US, responded quickly to the catastrophe. Or it could be because of the Haitians themselves who seemed to shrug off the death and destruction, and begin to rebuild. Some of that resilient spirit was demonstrated by the many rescues that have taken place long after the experts said nobody could still be found alive under the rubble.

Haitians, it seems, could never lie down and die, they just would not. Whatever it is, the quake disaster has awoken the best in humanity. The response has been singularly moving as people from around the world poured out their hearts and their money to support Haiti. The usual politics of blaming the victim was set aside as political adversaries came together to lend a helping hand.

Two former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have their own charity for Haiti. Hope for Haiti, a fundraising telethon hosted by US actor George Clooney last Friday paraded many stars who helped raise over $60m and counting from ordinary citizens in Canada and the US.
This week, officials from a number of donor countries are holding an emergency meeting with Haiti’s Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive in Montreal, Quebec to plan the long-term response to Haiti’s crisis including the possible cancellation of debts. Canada officially cancelled $2.3m in debt owed by Haiti in September 2009.

With so much pouring of goodwill from all corners of the globe, Haiti has the opportunity to start all over again. The planning for the new Haiti will have to factor new building codes that will withstand serious earthquakes. Schools that were falling apart, and which indeed fell apart during the earthquake will now get more than a facelift as they have to be built from the foundation up.
Haiti’s poor infrastructures will also be targeted by the new monies pouring in. New roads will be built while existing ones will be widened.

The larger silver lining here is that in a country where the unemployment level hovers at two-thirds of the labour force, there is opportunity for job boom in the construction and related industries. The roads will need rebuilding. The buildings will have to be reconstructed. Office towers will again emerge out of the rubble of Port-au-Prince. All these will require hundred of thousand of labourers to dig the foundations, lay bricks, weld steel beams, plaster the walls, lay the tiles on the roof. The list is endless. Suffice to say there will be enough work for thousands for very many years to come.

All of this, of course, depends on whether such jobs are first offered to Haitians before they go to migrant workers from the region and beyond. It also depends on whether there is complete accountability to ensure that reconstruction dollars are not pocketed by corrupt officials eager to grow rich on the back of the victims of the disaster.

Finally, it also depends on whether the aid money is completely without strings attached. The nightmare scenario would see all the money pour in as debts to be repaid at some future date, forever shackling the people of Haiti to crippling repayment schedules that will only thwart progress and development.

In essence, if all the stars line up correctly in the sky for Haiti, the earthquake may have delivered a devastating blow, but it also allowed the world which until now had ignored Haiti as the perpetually sick patient of the Western Hemisphere to give it a second chance. It will take a long time for the Haiti to get back onto its feet, and for Haitians to feel vibrant again.

But the people of Haiti are tough, and with a little goodwill from the global community as we have seen in the last two weeks, they may actually turn this disaster into a story of triumph.

Opiyo.oloya@sympatico.ca

The Haiti disaster could easily turn into a story of triumph

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