Monday, April 13, 2009

Haiti Donor's Conference

Haiti at the crossroads - Opinion - Haiti at the crossroads
Venecia Lonis, 4, who suffers from malnutrition, is held before being weighed at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Port-au-Prince. (Nov. 19, 2008)
On eve of aid donors' meeting, nation is poised between optimism and potential for serious unrest
April 13, 2009
Dave Toycen
President and CEO of World Vision Canada

My latest visit to Haiti a few weeks ago left me with conflicting feelings. I returned home both troubled and more hopeful than ever before in my 25 years of visiting the country.

Next to Afghanistan, no country receives as much Canadian assistance as Haiti. And only the United States provides it with more aid than Canada.

Haiti is important to us – and we are important to Haitians, more than 80,000 of whom live among us. Haiti is a place where Canada's voice is heard and has influence. And there is no more critical time than now to ensure that Haiti remains on the path to economic and social recovery.

Tomorrow, the Haiti donor nations will gather in Washington, D.C., to consider what they can do to help at this critical juncture. Joining Canada and the United States for these crucial discussions are France, Spain and representatives from the UN and international agencies such as the World Bank, the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank, the conference host.

Canada is providing Haiti with $555 million in aid over five years ending in 2011. No other country has made such a long-term commitment, but we may need to give a little more to forestall a crisis that would surely result from any sudden increase in food prices.

Last month, the International Crisis Group warned that Haiti is in a "fragile" state with a potential for "serious trouble" unless the donors' conference takes concrete action to address the dissatisfaction of its poor. A recent UN fact-finding mission reached the same conclusion.

Still, while I fear that a spike in food prices could cause riots among the hungry, I also saw many positives during my six-day stay. I met local government officials and hundreds of ordinary Haitians who are trying to build a stable future. Compared to my last visit five years ago, there is a contagious optimism among the young as well as among local leaders who are learning that they can make a difference.

I was glad to see that people are beginning to take ownership of their communities. In a country where the national government controls the majority of the budget, money will only flow to where it is needed outside the capital in response to local pressure. And it is only when education, sanitation and health care receive appropriate funding that communities can stand on their own feet and build the groundwork for a stable future.

When local communities cannot feed, educate and heal themselves, Haitians will inescapably call upon Canada to provide additional disaster aid. It is a curious irony that we are always one of the first nations to step up to the plate with emergency relief, but that we are not as forthcoming to make the proactive investments that would minimize the impact of disasters or food shortages.

Haiti has great potential. It is not a failed state, although it has been plagued by corruption and violence. There is no ethnic conflict. It is not surrounded by instability. It has a good workforce and once had a viable textile industry that needs to be restored.

At the donors' conference, Canada should back investments that create jobs and measures that allow the country to sustain itself, including achieving self-sufficiency in foodstuffs. As a safety net in the interim, Canada must push for adequate food aid so that the recovery process is not derailed by potential hunger riots. Today, about half the country's food has to be imported, and chronic malnutrition makes Haiti's child mortality rate the worst in our hemisphere.

Canada should also encourage local development and empowerment as a means of building stability. Issues such as land tenure and the incredibly high concentration of wealth in only a few hands need to be addressed.

Without education there will be a future without stability or prosperity. The UN Development Index ranks Haiti 146th out of 177 countries worldwide. About 52 per cent of the population is literate, just half the primary school age children attend school and only 2 per cent graduate from secondary school. The country has among the worst infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. I find it tragic to acknowledge such a sorry state of affairs just a few hours away from our comfortable homes.

Poverty and illiteracy victimize children in other ways. Some parents feel they have no choice but to sell their children into servitude. I encountered a 9-year-old boy who was a virtual house slave, one of an estimated 300,000 in this tragic situation according to UNICEF. With poverty comes sexual exploitation. UNICEF also estimates that as many as 2,000 children are trafficked every year to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island with Haiti.

A few days after I left Haiti, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former U.S. president Bill Clinton visited some of the same places I had been. Afterward, they urged nations to continue their financial support despite donor fatigue. Accompanying them was former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna. Addressing the issue of providing aid in the midst of a global economic crisis, McKenna said: "We have to realize that whatever pain we're feeling, it is minuscule compared to the misery of people who are living on less than a dollar a day. It's times like this when we have to dig deep and try to help." I could not agree more.

1 comment:

bppopkin said...

I spent much of September-October 2008 in Haiti as a team member to design a post-hurricane reconstruction program for U.S. foreign assistance. Here are my observations in summary.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80 percent of its population in poverty, and 54 percent in abject poverty. It has suffered extensive difficulties, if not calamities, with awesome challenges in recent times. These include, aside from hurricanes and Creole language, for example, wide-spread illiteracy and poverty, rapid growing population and unemployment, HIV/ AIDs explosions, declining incomes and diminishing wealth, extensive brain drain immigration of both workers and elite (especially skilled and educated people), rising crime, insecurity and lawlessness, corruption, land tenure uncertainties, absentee large-scale landholders, dysfunctional government, and rapid and intensified hillside erosion from unchecked deforestation and non-sustainable agricultural practices, peri-urbanization, and urbanization.

Approximately 70 percent of Haiti’s nine million people work in the agricultural sector, primarily for crops-for-cash, household vegetable gardens, and important exports – coffee, cacao, and mango, but these are limited by quality, seasonal storms, and post-harvest challenges such as poor roads, insufficient delivery and storage, and spotty customs office and uncertain shipping. At the same time, the migration from Haiti’s rural areas to its cities, especially its capital Port-au-Prince and secondary cities such as Gona├»ves, is increasing at alarming rates contributing to more slums and urban unemployment.

Most agriculture is dryland, historically on the thick, alluvial, well-drained calcareous soils in the plains, derived from upland volcanic rocks and midland carbonate rocks. Urbanization in the plains, even where below or near sea level, and absentee large-scale agricultural land owners, has led to declining agricultural production with catastrophic flood crises due to recurrent flooding from hurricanes, exacerbated by upper watershed deforestation, destruction of irrigation and drainage canals, and poor hillside agricultural practices.

The crushing demands of poverty, coupled with diminishing available alluvial farmland, have forced small farmers to the hillsides. This migration has lead to extensive deforestation for timber, firewood, charcoal, and land clearing for quick cash, followed by seasonal vegetable farming for cabbage, potatoes and yams, on bright-red, lateritic soils, with little organic matter, on 40-60° slopes. It is now cheaper to import rice and sugar than to produce it in Haiti, contrary to when Haiti exported these crops. Hillside farmers often use ropes as lifelines to reach their small, steep fields to tend their crops. As increasing poverty and urbanization increases pressure for food, many observers anticipate continued degradation of the hillsides by replacement of the few remaining forests or forest areas with seasonal vegetable crops, leading to further accelerated erosion and flooding, and related human tragedy.

These challenges are magnified in the large Cul-de-Sac watershed, which contains Port-au-Prince and much of the Haitian population, but several are not insurmountable, theoretically. Improved hillside agricultural practices are theoretically promising, such as soil restoration and replacement, terracing, on-contour farming, alternating and intercropping of fruit trees, charcoal plantation trees, and vegetable crops. Floodwaters could be viewed as a resource, and harvested for hydroelectric power and groundwater recharge. Deposited sediments are also a potential resource as engineering and road-bed materials. Urban runoff could be captured for groundwater recharge with roof-top harvesting and recharge basins. These interventions require a national commitment from the Haitian government, not merely emergency responses common with the donor community, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), humanitarian aid groups, and local communities.

Although Haiti has been in the news lately due to recent hurricanes and other tragedies, it has several international donors, NGOs, humanitarian organizations, and local communities poised to improve the situation. Unfortunately, foreign assistance has not led to sustained development, although some short-term income and improvements have resulted (such as ASSET, DEED, HAP1) on a discontinuous, often non-integrated project basis. Most assistance has led to dependency rather than the opposite.

What, then, does the future hold for Haiti, as continued anthropogenic environmental degradation and urbanization accelerates erosion through increased peak flood heights, flood duration, and flood volumes? Some believe that Haiti’s agricultural future must diminish and that a massive literacy, education, and vocational training program must be implemented and succeed to support other livelihoods such as tourism, art-dance-music-performance centers, hospitality industry, retirement communities, and skills preparation for overseas foreign workers.