Haiti's Working Better (Piti, Piti...)

  • Posted on: 8 December 2009
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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Kathie Klarreich, who has been covering Haiti since 1986, recently wrote a Miami Herald article on the many small yet promising signs that Port au Prince is becoming calmer, better governed, and more stable.  Challenges abound, including improving the delivery of health services and reforming the justice system, but these visible signs of progress contribute to a growing sense of optimism and a belief that things can and will continue to improve.


As my plane came in for a landing during a recent trip to Port-a u-Prince, I was surprised to see five different planes from five different airlines on what used to be a deserted runway. Surprised to see that the traffic signals downtown, which rarely worked because of an electricity shortage, now run 24/7, not because there is more electricity -- which there is -- but because they are powered by solar panels.


Even more amazing, drivers slow down for yellow lights and stop when they are red. Whether real or perceived, there is a sense of order on the streets. Such minor advances may seem insignificant in a country where monumental leaps are critical to its survival. But small steps, collectively, could be the magic formula for a poor, relatively uneducated population not predisposed to making drastic lifestyle changes imposed by the outside.


Besides working traffic lights, there are lane markers on major streets in the capital; traffic cones to help people respect traffic patterns; public garbage cans, garbage pickup. Updated government websites make information accessible for the first time. There are innovative South-to-South programs working with youth in some of the most dangerous suburbs and a cautiously renewed sense of security because of strategically placed, well-trained police backed by an ongoing United Nations presence.


Minor improvements, for sure, but ones that have enhanced the quality of life for millions of Haitians. That goes a long way for a population that has suffered decades of dictatorships, coups d'état, gang warfare and civil unrest.  For the first time in years there is an active night life, and people are circulating without fear of being kidnapped. There may not be a cinema in the entire country, but there are dozens of new restaurants, new nightclubs and new locales to listen to music -- not just popular Haitian compas but traditional drumming and fusion jazz. International businesses are investing -- large, multistoried office buildings with elevators and big glass windows and large neon signage.


This is not to say that the problems that have plagued Haiti for centuries have disappeared. The vast majority of the population is still desperately poor, illiterate and unemployed. The economy is improving but the starting point was so far below ground that the rate of growth is hardly fast enough. The environment is at a dangerous juncture, and recovery from last year's succession of hurricanes that displaced tens of thousands and killed hundreds has been negligible. Health, justice and education are all overwhelmingly underfunded. Like most government services, they are limited and battle systemic corruption.


Still the demonstrations and riots that have marred Haiti's history currently are in check. Even as political jockeying recently forced a competent prime minister from office, democratic principles prevailed and a new prime minister was quickly nominated. Almost everyone is hoping that next year's presidential election will be as smooth.


No doubt the U.N. appointment of Bill Clinton as its special envoy has contributed to this calm. The goal of Clinton's two-year Global Initiative is to work with the government and the people of Haiti to jumpstart economic growth and strengthen essential services while ensuring that funders make good on their global $365 million pledge. There are plans under way for job creation, disaster-risk reduction and preparedness and nongovernmental coordination.


Haitians are hoping that Clinton's success will influence their country's success. As one middle-class entrepreneur said to me, there's still plenty to complain about, but no one wants to be accused of derailing Clinton's Initiative. If nothing comes of Clinton's plan, he said, all bets are off. But for the time being this small businessman will wait patiently for a payment three months overdue and for the benefits he anticipates will come from the Initiative.


As I boarded my return flight to Miami -- through a covered access as opposed to the exposed tarmac -- I realized that that it had been years since I'd taken a night flight. Suddenly I was passing over a bed of lights flickering from a city that used to be a blanket of darkness. Today those lights bring hope for a brighter future, long overdue in a country that so desperately needs it.


Kathie Klarreich, author of Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti

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