18 January 2010

Maybe the Earthquake was a good thing…

The recent earthquake in Haiti may have been the best thing that could have happened to the country.

Now don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that Haiti deserved it. The massive level of destruction and loss of human lives (tens of thousands feared dead, millions more affected, says the Haitian Red Cross[1]) is horrendous and never desired.

What I am saying is that Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished nation, may finally be getting the attention it needs to bring it to a higher level of development.

Haiti, a Caribbean nation with beautiful beaches, lush mountains, valuable natural resources and a rich French-Creole history, is a country that should attract many tourists. But for the last almost 170 years, Haiti has been plagued by political instability, dictatorships, coups, violence, and an ever increasing poverty level. A bloody rebellion in 2004 left the country in shambles; 2008 brought a series of hurricanes that overwhelmed the nation and destroyed much of its already limited infrastructure.

Under current President Rene Preval, the country seems to be slowly stabilising. But President Preval has a long way to go. In 2009, Haiti was number 149 out of 182 countries on the UN Human Development Index[2], in company with countries such as Sudan, Tanzania and Papua New Guinea. Human rights abuses abound in Haiti. The right to life, arguably the most essential human right, is still continuously violated. Rampant instances of crime and corruption, violence against women and girls, and cruel and degrading treatment in Haitian prisons were still exposed as recent as March 2009[3]. Even more staggering are the breaches of economic, social and cultural rights: only 1 in 5 Haitian secondary-school age children actually attend a secondary school. Only 25% of the population has access to clean water, 80% of the rural population lives in poverty, including particularly vulnerable women and children.[4]

The World Bank called Haiti “a Poverty Trap”[5] – where underinvestment in human capital, lack of economic opportunities, and poor governance keep it locked in a state of hopelessness.

So what needs to be done to bring Haiti onto the development train? Of course, for a problem this large, there is no quick fix. Haiti needs a secure and stable environment and economy; its government needs to be strengthened; its people’s inherent human rights need to be fulfilled. Most of all, Haiti needs the support of governments and donors.

Haiti has ratified the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all which bind the government to respect, protect and fulfil specific human rights, as defined by those treaties. In 2004, the United Nations established the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH)[6] to secure and stabilise Haitian social structures, assist the political process and to monitor and report on the human rights situation in the nation.

Monumentally, in 2009, Haiti received full debt relief from the International Monetary Fund under the Heavily-Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, which is designed to allow a country with an un-manageable debt burden to achieve poverty reduction through re-investing that money in governmental structures and social services.  
But with every step forward, Haiti –the ‘Poverty Trap’ – seems to take two steps back. The earthquake has affected the most vulnerable and has damaged crucial infrastructure. It is going to take a lot of investment to get Haiti back on track.

But here we are today: Haiti is the number one story in the media. Donations to humanitarian relief and development organisations are flowing in. Former US President and current Special Envoy for Haiti, Bill Clinton agrees that what Haiti needs most now is “money for water, food, shelter and basic medical supplies to bring immediate relief[7].  From these contributions, development agencies can assist in the process of not only just getting Haiti back to where they were at 4:30pm local time on January 13, 2010 just before the earthquake struck, but also to where they can be – secure, stable and full of hope.

So, as devastating as the earthquake was, maybe it was just what Haiti needed.