What Next for Gonaives?
The devastation to Gonaives brought with it a sense of déjà vu for Haiti watchers. We’ve been here before - the damage from Tropical Storm Jeanne was massive. Then as now, there were serious humanitarian needs that donors, non-governmental, and international organizations struggled mightily to meet. Then as now, there were a steady flow of politicians and celebrities. Other disasters happened elsewhere and Haiti again fell of the radar. The long term steps needed to ensure the survival of the city were not taken. Will things be different this time or will a preventable tragedy happen yet again?
One of the largest cities in Haiti, Gonaives has traditionally been a source of pride. On January 1, 1804 Jean Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti free from France in the Place des Armes, forever making Gonaives the city of independence. Gonaives has since given birth to both social and political movements. Imagine for a moment a historical city like Philadelphia teetering on the bring of disaster every year. Perhaps the residents of New Orleans can best understand what the people of Gonaives are going through.
Will Haiti fall of the radar again? The signs are not positive. The United Nations released an $108 million flash appeal that it needs to respond to emergency needs. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that slightly over 3% of the appeal has been met by donor governments.
As with Jeanne, there has been a vigorous debate in Congress on how best to help Haiti recovery. Aid? Trade? Debt Relief? Temporary Protected Status? All of the above? There was recently a hearing in Congress entitled, "Hurricanes in Haiti: Disaster and Recovery" that was hosted by House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. A hearing very much like this one was held in March 2004. Click here for a transcript.
This time, the hearing was chaired by Representative Engel (D-NY) and attended by Representatives Burton (R-TN), Payne (D-NJ), Delahunt (D-MA) and Sires (D-NJ). Chairman Engel emphasized that the international community needs a plan to manage a future crisis and help Haiti reforest its hillsides right away to prevent flooding…by focusing on the most problematic watersheds with labor intensive reforestation, we could take the three key steps at the same time: environmental reforestation, flood minimization, and unemployment reduction.” We could not agree more. Representative Delahunt stressed that the USG needed to do more, noting the disparity between development assistance given to Haiti and Georgia (Georgia is scheduled for $1 billion in assistance, while Haiti has only received $30 million).
Rep. Waters informed the subcommittee that the Haitian government has provided her office with a detailed list of needs asking for various items such as portable bridges, patrol boats, rehabilitation of major ports, water pumps and pipes, and sewage cleanup supplies. The Haitian government is also seeking a total of 2,265 agricultural tool kits that will be distributed in order to begin the process of restoring the agricultural sector. Doing so is one of President Preval's highest priorities. Rep. Waters has sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi requesting $300 million in emergency appropriations in disaster assistance which has been signed by 67 members of Congress. Rep. Waters urged the subcommittee to support this request.
Rep. Hastings proposed immediate cancellation of all of Haiti’s international debt, which unanimously passed the House of Representatives. He also proposed temporay-protected status (TPS) for Haitians to prevent deportation from the United States. Whenever proposed, TPS is always controversial. Rep. Lee mentioned the Next Steps for Haiti Act (H.R. 6255), a bill that she worked on with Chairman Engel. This bill would provide technical expertise in areas such as education and infrastructure in order to build human capacity to help Haiti address its own problems. Additionally, she advocated the US-Caribbean Educational Exchange Bill (H.R. 176), which has been proposed by former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.
Rep. Meek, who represents the district with the largest Haitian population, stressed that the US needs to take advantage of the international community and their efforts to assist Haiti. He stated the US needs to improve the synergy between the various public and private disaster efforts as well as lead coordinating efforts with international partners so aid is more effective. Rep. Edwards will be pulling together a group of philanthropists together in New York to encourage their direct involvement. In a follow on panel, Jose Cardenas, the USAID Assisting Administrator for the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, stated that while the US Department of Defense, the CDC and the US Navy have all been actively involved, more needs to be done. USAID has provided more than $30 million so far and intends to focus on repairing infrastructure, restoring public services, supporting small businesses and farmers, watershed stabilization and repair and improving disaster mitigation capacity.
Capacity was a recurring theme during the hearing. If Haiti is to develop sustainably, its government and civil society must be able to prevent and respond to natural disasters with strategic support from the international community, not the other way around. As of yet, Haiti has not truly taken advantage of the best source of capacity available to it – the Diaspora. Haitians in the United States, France, Canada, and other Caribbean countries have acquired knowledge, skills, and resources that could benefit Haiti. However, they should not be taken for granted. The Haitian government can empower them by making available dual citizenship, allowing Haitians abroad to vote, and opening up government jobs to members of the Diaspora. Many will not come back permanently, but certainly some would be willing to come back for a year or two.
In terms of disaster response, the Haitian Red Cross is the sole nationwide network of responders. American Red Cross maintains a 15 person office in Port au Prince that works very closely with Haitian counterparts who have been carrying out evacuation, search and rescue, assisting in shelters, providing first aid, assessing damage, and distributing supplies. Bolstering the Haitian Red Cross is an excellent way to build national capacity.
In the short term, the humanitarian needs of survivors - health, shelter, livelihoods, must be met. In the medium term, infrastructure needs to be improved - this includes cleaning out canals, rebuilding irrigation, establishing drainage systems and building bridges and roads that can stand up to a flood. Through a national Haitian Conservation Corps, these improvements could be made while employing a population in need of livelihoods.
Over the long term though, there is no substitute for a national coordinated approach to reforestation. An EU commisioned study released a report stating the global economy is losing more money from deforestation than from the current banking crisis. Gonaives is a case study for the economic and humanitarian costs of deforestation. As so many movements have begun in Gonaives, it would be only fitting if a national reforestation effort started here as well.
When relief operations are over, the reconstruction resumes. A coordinated and sustained approach by donors, the Haitian government, the Diaspora, and other friends of Haiti would help build a city that can live up to its history and withstand the next storm.