Why we should give more

Donations to Haiti have helped, but the country has more needs than we can imagine

March 31, 2010|By Bill Holbrook


Today in New York, donors will be asked to provide $11.5 billion to help Haiti recover from the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake. Since the U.S. government has already provided more than $700 million in assistance - a number that will likely rise - some might ask: Why should we give more?

To these skeptics, I have two responses. First, more is getting done than you think. And second, more needs to be done than you can imagine.

Nearly two months ago, I left my home in Montgomery County bound for Port-au-Prince to lead the relief and recovery efforts of the international aid agency Mercy Corps. Haiti is near and dear to my heart. I first lived there in 1996, I have been married to the same wonderful Haitian-American woman for 12 years now, and Haiti has become a home-away-from-home for our family.

I've come to know the country well, and even with its many charms, Haiti can be an extremely challenging place to work. The situation was disastrous before this disaster ever occurred; the people of Haiti have been exploited and impoverished for the better part of 200 years.

What do you get when you layer that reality with a powerful earthquake in the country's overcrowded, under-resourced urban core? Logistical chaos. Relief efforts may not have been perfect, but the obstacles - a collapsed port, the serious loss of scarce human resources, collapsed centers of government and response, a scattered population still suffering the effects of shock - have been extreme.

Still, great strides have been made. The United Nations and international aid groups are providing more than 1.2 million people in Port-au-Prince with clean water each day. Food is being distributed in massive quantities; the World Food Program estimates it has reached more than 4 million people since Jan. 12. The Haitian government announced that schools will reopen tomorrow.

This week, donors will grapple with how to help Haiti use this very tragic but pivotal moment in history to become something better - a viable state with a viable economy. I would encourage donors to read the analysis of the quake's impact prepared by the Haitian government, the U.N. and other international organizations, and prepare to act boldly. Haitians know what they need, and I hope we will keep the faith and listen to them.

Large swaths of the population seek out a subsistence living in the country's vast, informal economy, selling anything they can get their hands on. But almost every Haitian would abandon that hand-to-mouth existence for a real job with a future. They need skills training, jobs and private-sector investment.

Today, Haiti must resurrect a middle economy that was lost many years ago. This would offer hundreds of thousands of decent-paying jobs - transforming a largely unskilled work force stuck at the bottom of the economic pyramid into a skilled work force. But Haitians need international assistance to make this possible. Industries such as apparel production, agriculture and tourism should be nurtured in both the provinces and the capital city so that Haitians can participate formally in a growing, vibrant grass-roots economy.

Perhaps the most difficult proposal to donors will be to bolster the Haitian government. In the last 100 years of Haitian governance, many things have gone very wrong. But no country can make meaningful progress without resourced and functional government institutions. President René Préval's government has had limited capacity, but its vision for Haiti is solid, and it has been working effectively with international partners. While cooperation and progress continue, the Haitian government merits our support.

Haiti faces huge obstacles and a troubled history, but that should not make the international community shy away. If mold-breaking change is ever going to happen in Haiti, it will happen now, with all of us - Haitians, donors, the business sector, aid groups - focused on the end game of building the future that Haitians envision for themselves and deserve.

Bill Holbrook, a Burtonsville resident, is the Haiti country director for the international aid group Mercy Corps. His e-mail is wholbrook@ht.mercycorps.org.

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