The worldwide outpouring of support for Haitians from governments and ordinary citizens has been extraordinary. Rescue teams saving people pinned under collapsed buildings and medical teams performing surgery without basic supplies have been spellbinding. But this heroic phase of the emergency response is drawing to a close.
The next phase of the response has begun and is becoming increasingly well-organized. It is meant to stabilize the situation, re-establish a sense of normalcy and prevent epidemics - always a threat when people go hungry, drink polluted water and live cheek by jowl. This phase will involve the provision of water, food, sanitation, security and temporary shelter to hundreds of thousands of Haitians. In addition, tens of thousands should be put to work in temporary but paid jobs, clearing debris, building latrines, putting up tents - and returning money to the economy.
On Monday, members of the international donor community met in Montreal to begin focusing on the long-term task of rebuilding Haiti. They know what made so many Haitians so vulnerable to this disaster was extreme poverty. Haiti is poorer than Bangladesh, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
In this moment of worldwide solidarity with Haiti, international political leaders - with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the forefront - are eager to turn a disaster of unfathomable proportions into a historic opportunity. They want to help put Haiti firmly on a path toward economic, social and political development. They are signing up for a task that will take a sustained international and Haitian commitment, stretching over at least a decade.
Here are just a few of the challenges:
- Coordination of the international effort will be crucial. Both U.N. headquarters and the Haitian government literally were decimated by the quake. The United States must step into the breach, but tread lightly: giving primacy to civilian American leadership, welcoming the partnership of other contributors and progressively ceding coordination to the United Nations and to the Haitian government.
- The Haitian government and people must be masters of their own development. This is a tall order in a nation with a long tradition of the state being "owned" by those who occupy it, and of the people too often being treated as though they were there to be exploited. President Rene Preval, a quiet, self-effacing leader, will need to reach out to others, crossing lines that have long divided Haitians, welcoming the inclusion of civil society and business, reining in corruption, and building the institutional capacities of all three branches of government.
- It can be argued Haiti is a country in which everything is needed and must be done at once. Yet ambitious projects must be based on sound assessments and engagement of the presumed beneficiaries.
Despite the challenges, there is some basis for hope.
Unprecedented media coverage of the Haitian disaster, the vast outpouring of support from ordinary Americans, and the commitments of U.S. leaders for long-term support auger well. It is up to all of us to urge follow-through.
Once, much of the world considered Haiti the problem exclusively of the United States. But the world has changed. The United Nations and its peacekeepers, led by Brazil, have helped provide security. They have been joined by Chileans, Argentines and Uruguayans. Canada has provided key development support. For historic reasons, France is present. So, too, are others, including China and Israel. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are important players. And the Haitian Diaspora has a significant role.
Ultimately, of course, the rebuilding of Haiti will depend on the Haitians themselves.
Even as the international community is rallying and providing crucial support, the little-covered story in Haiti has been about Haitians rescuing and helping Haitians. So, too, must they do the bulk of the work over the coming months and years. What has always been most remarkable to me about Haitians is not their poverty or the fragility of their institutions, but their faith, resilience, resourcefulness and hard work. If the United States and our partners are truly to help Haiti, we will need to respect Haitian strengths and aspirations, and build on them. They will be the foundation of the "new" Haiti.