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A woman walks along a street lined with rubble from buildings that collapsed in the earthquake in downtown Port-au-Prince, Wednesday, March 24, 2010. A 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, killing and injuring hundreds of thousands and leaving more than a million people living in makeshift camps. (Jorge Saenz/Associated Press)

One of the most destructive earthquakes in history, the one that hit Haiti on Jan. 12, will be the focus of a much-anticipated gathering at the United Nations in New York on March 31.

The International Donors' Conference Towards a New Future for Haiti will be akin to a scripted international telethon (or webathon, since it will be webcast live). UN member states and international organizations will make pledges of new support for Haiti during the one day meeting.

Near the top of the agenda will be the presentation of the Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment (see sidebar).

The earthquake's toll in Haiti

A "Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment" (PDNA) by Haiti's government and several major donors will be presented on March 31. A draft of the PDNA released March 24 has the following statistics on the earthquake's destruction:

More than 220,000 people killed and more than 300,000 others injured.

Temporary shelters in the Port-au-Prince area house 1.3 million people and more than 500,000 have left to seek shelter elsewhere.

Worst hit city: Léogâne, 80 per cent destroyed.

Homes: 105,000 completely destroyed, more than 208,000 damaged.

Educational institutions: more than 1,300 collapsed or unusable.

Hospitals and health centres: more than 50 collapsed or unusable.

Debris: 40 million cubic metres

Total value of damage and losses: US$7.9 billion, equivalent to 120 per cent of Haiti's 2009 GDP (by that measure, the Jan. 12 quake was the worst disaster in the 35 years that methodology has been applied)

Recovery cost: $11.5 billion over the next three years

While humanitarian aid remains critical, the conference marks the shifting of the focus from humanitarian response to rebuilding Haiti. So after outlining the damage, the PDNA outlines the goals of this process, in order to rebuild Haiti better.

 

Rethinking governance

A key goal is "to rebuild the state and economy for all Haitians." The weakness of the Haitian state became clear through it near invisibility in the earthquake's immediate aftermath.

Outside governments and aid organizations had for years been putting resources into building parallel systems to the Haitian government. Even in 1990s, the Canadian International Development Agency conceded that this approach "undermined efforts to strengthen good governance" by "eroding legitimacy, capacity and will of the state to deliver key services." Yet that approach continued.

So the need for an international response to this latest crisis in Haiti is even greater now. But there is not only the need, many observers say there is also the responsibility. It would be an understatement to say that Haiti has not benefitted from foreign intervention in the past.

First there was the enslavement and genocide of the native population by Spain, then France's slave system exploiting Africans when they ruled the area that became Haiti. The U.S. also introduced a system of forced labour during their first occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934.

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Dr. Paul Farmer, right, the U.N. deputy special envoy for Haiti and Bill Clinton, the special envoy while touring the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Monday, Jan. 18, 2010, six days after the earthquake. Farmer is also the founder of the aid group, Partners in Health. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)

For Dr. Paul Farmer, the UN deputy special envoy to Haiti under president Bill Clinton, that past engagement with Haiti does create the responsibility. He says not only is there "no reason we cannot turn U.S.-French-Canadian policies around," he believes "we will do that."

For Haitian-American Jacques-Philippe Piverger that history is "part of what makes it challenging," for the U.S. especially, "to come in a few decades later, proposing that they are going to "help" those people when it is not clear they ever wanted to help those people."

 

Strengthening the Haitian state

The international community now seems to accept the importance of building up state capacity through the rebuilding process, rather than continuing to overwhelmingly rely on NGOs and private contractors in Haiti.

In an interview with CBC Radio's Michael Enright, Dr. Farmer, the founder of the U.S. aid organisation, Partners in Health, spoke about the need to strengthen Haitian public institutions. "It is absurd that you have to underline that but over the past several years that has not been our policy."

"I was appalled to see that we're bypassing Haitian public health and education, two areas that concern any doctor," Farmer said. He has more than 30 years of experience in Haiti.

"Otherwise we will end up with a state so weak it cannot meet the basic needs of its population."

 

What about Haitian civil society?

The draft PDNA also discusses the importance of political consensus and support for civil society. Nevertheless, last week a press release from "more than 26 Haitian civil society organizations" condemned the process being followed to come up with the PDNA for the March 31 conference.

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A woman walks with a bag of rice on her head as others line up at a food distribution in Port-au-Prince, Wednesday, March 24, 2010. (Jorge Saenz/Associated Press)

According to the groups, "The process has been characterised by an almost total exclusion of Haitian social actors themselves and scant and disorganised participation of representatives from the Haitian state."

Piverger see rebuilding Haiti as a joint venture that requires the participation of international aid organisations, government, the Haitian Diaspora and civil society.

"People on the ground there have to have a real seat at the table, be involved in the process, and when it's done they need to understand and know how to keep it going," he said in an interview with CBC News. "Otherwise it's a failed process."

The important Haitian Diaspora

Piverger is the Haitian-American founder of Global Syndicate and is on the board of Hope for Haiti Now, which organized the big January fund-raising concert and telethon in the U.S. So Piverger is part of that Haitian Diaspora, one of those groups he says must work "together in order to have something that will be sustainable for the long run."

Through remittances, the Diaspora accounts for twice the amount of money flowing into Haiti compared with both international aid (before the earthquake) and goods exported from Haiti. And about 80 per cent of trained and educated Haitians are living abroad. (Nevertheless, Haitians are among the poorest migrant communities in the Americas.)

The Haiti government even has a Minister of Haitians Living Abroad.

Rebuilding Haiti: before the quake

The draft Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment paints a portrait of a nation in desperate need before the Jan. 12 earthquake. Some numbers from the report:

Health:

Maternal and infant mortality: significantly higher rate than in other countries in the region.

Access to formal health: less than half the population

Access to drinking water: less than half the population

Nutrition:  30 per cent of children were suffering from chronic malnutrition.  40 per cent of households were living in food insecurity.

 

Education: 500,000 children, aged 6-12 years, not in school

Illiteracy: 38 per cent, 15 years and older

Unemployment: 30 per cent nationally, 45 per cent in Port-au-Prince

Forests: less than 2 per cent of the country

A three-day conference at the Organization of American States this week brought together about 500 members of the Diaspora. But past experience meant there was skepticism the government, and the international community, will listen to them this time. At the Diaspora conference a petition circulated that asks for more participation at the March 31 conference and the proposed Haiti redevelopment authority.

Will they deliver?

There is also skepticism about whether the international community will ever deliver on the aid promises they pledge on March 31. Paul Farmer remembers a UN donor conference in April 2009 following hurricanes that ravaged Haiti the previous summer.

As of February this year, Farmer says, 85 per cent of pledges made at the conference had not been met.

 

Hope for Haiti

Still, there is hope for Haiti, given the unprecedented popular and prompt support around the world that followed the earthquake. The new ways Haiti received that support, both financial and through volunteering, especially through the web and social media, gives some people that hope.

In the days leading up to the March 31 conference we will explore that side of the story.

And after the conference, we may see social media used as a tool to pressure countries to honour their pledges this time.