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Haiti: daring to choose the future
Bernard Husson

CIEDEL (Centre International d’Etudes pour le Développement Local) is a professional and academic training institute for development actors from France and abroad at the Université Catholique de Lyon. Since it was created over 20 years ago, it has regularly counted Haitian development professionals amongst its students and its teachers have frequently been involved in providing support to development initiatives in Haiti. This article was written by the CIEDEL team in close consultation with the network of Haitian former students and former students working in development in Haiti (Hudson Michel., Hubert Normil, David Tilus, Isabelle Biney, Jean-Paul Pierre, Pierre Etienne, Talégrand Noël., Gina Termilus, Jean-Hervé François, Emmanuel Robert, etc.).

The necessary transition from providing emergency relief to supporting the dynamism of a people

Solidarity networks were up and running in Port-au-Prince and throughout Haiti only a few hours after the earthquake struck. People helped each other to get family members, neighbours and injured strangers out of unsafe houses. There was solidarity throughout the country despite problems in accessing information and the absence of instructions from the national authorities who had been badly hit. The day after the earthquake, the mayor of Cap-Haïtien requisitioned buses to transport injured people from Port-au-Prince to his town’s hospital. Solidarity of this kind was shown all over the country.

Spontaneous acts of this kind will not be enough to rebuild Port-au-Prince and the rest of the country. It is essential that international aid continues to be provided in the long term if Haiti is to come back to life in the coming weeks, months and years. But it is up to the Haitians to decide what the priorities are. Experience has shown that the greater the amount of aid – and for Haiti, it needs to be a large amount – the greater the risk of abuse. Even if it is properly managed, international aid alone can not rebuild the country and give Haitians a future. This can only come if the Haitians themselves have the will – will of the kind that they demonstrated immediately after the earthquake. But this will needs to be encouraged, supported and allowed to express itself!

This disaster could lead to the advent of a new era in the political life and the development of Haiti. Many declarations have been made along these lines and there is much hope that this will happen. But if the people of Haiti are to realise this ambition, international aid must also help them to regain control of their country by supporting the work of public bodies and regional authorities.

Though this is rarely done after disasters, international aid should be used for other purposes than simply to rebuild what has been destroyed. It is essential that part of the aid is used to strengthen social networks, local institutions and associations who are in direct contact with the local people. The importance of actions of this kind can not be overstated. The earthquake did not modify the difficult, and too often brutal, political relations within Haitian society. Decisions about how the aid is used could exacerbate these. The large amounts of money which have been mobilised will undoubtedly feed the country’s endemic corruption. Judging by the country’s history, it is unlikely that the added poverty and problems that people are now burdened with will limit the number of attacks, the abuse of power, the hijacking of political power and the appropriation of the country’s wealth by a small number of people. There is a need to strengthen internal solidarity over and above the acts of solidarity which followed the earthquake.

Therefore, providing organisations who work with the Haitian people with resources will be a decisive factor for the future of Haiti. A positive point is that these organisations already exist. There are many different kinds and they were the first to take action in the hours that followed the earthquake. Village organisations, cooperative and professional associations and the Haitian Diaspora continue to be very active, but they need to be consolidated. Only grassroots organisations of this kind will be able to mobilise the citizens of Haiti to reconstruct the capital and the country in the long term. The fragility of the political situation makes providing these organisations with support all the more important. They have a major role to play in helping people realise that they can shape the country’s future despite the weight of history and the chaos that has been created by the earthquake. Allowing the people of Port-au-Prince to take part in the city’s reconstruction will instil them with a sense of “ownership”. Giving Haitians a role in renovating the capital will help to make them feel they have a right to be involved in making decisions from which they have been excluded for so many decades.