Haiti at the crossroads TheStar.com - Opinion - Haiti at the crossroads
Ramon Espinosa/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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
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.