The to-do list is nearly overwhelming

Brian Stewart on the daunting task facing Haiti's rebuilders.

Canada's action in pulling together an international summit on Haiti for next week is commendably bold.

But all attending need to be realistic: This is a catastrophe far worse even than it looks.

Amidst all the rubble, mass graves and tragic disorder is the core fact that Haiti has been a chronically failed state of almost fathomless misery, a country regularly ravaged by natural disaster and intractable government corruption.

Safe in Montreal: a woman evacuated from Haiti arrives in Montreal on Sunday, Jan. 17. 2010. Canada is hosting an emergency summit on Haiti in Montreal, beginning Jan. 25. (Graham Huges/Canadian Press)

Simply put, there's no status quo that any reasonable person would want to return to.

Indeed, there is no realistic hope for Haitians unless they and an interventionist world, already weary of foreign adventures and crises, can create something very different from here on.

However well funded, traditional emergency aid and development assistance on their own simply won't succeed in this instance.

There is far too much to do and far too many inherent weaknesses to overcome. The summit in Montreal will have to make a start at a truly historic effort.

A long list

The emergency work, of course, takes precedence over everything at the moment.

But the donor nations that come to Montreal will need to hive off teams of experts in nation building and recovery to create a new way forward.

And they should not be vague about their intent: This is not "rebuilding" in the classic sense after a natural disaster, but rather the root-and-branch creation of a functioning state.

Just make a list of everything Haiti critically, desperately, needs: Basic hygiene, sewer and water pipelines, medical services ranging from neighbourhood clinics to hospitals, roads, electricity lines, telecommunications, schools, new port facilities, market places, public housing, transport services, agricultural support and nationwide reforestation, assistance for devastated economic enterprises, police stations, reliable public security forces, even a place where a new government can meet that is not, as it was this week, in the open air.

Anything less than building from the bottom up will leave Haiti perennially fragile, open to devastation again in the next hurricane season or the next round of internal violence.

Hope amid the ruin

If there is anything remotely approaching a hopeful sign at the moment, it lies in the knowledge that extreme crises can offer societies the opportunity to reinvent themselves.

A woman sits in front of the collapsed cathedral of Port-au-Prince, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010. Even many of the most modern buildings were destroyed in Tuesday's quake. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa) (The Associated Press)

Many public officials are understandably hesitant to state this now, for fear of offending the victims of the quake and their families.

But the need to seek "hope amid the ruin" needs to be a recurring theme at the Montreal summit if real change is going to come.

"It terrible to look at it this way, but out of crisis often comes real change," says Ross Anthony, global health director for the large Rand Corporation think tank.

"The people and the institutions take on the crisis and bring forth things they weren't able to do in the past."

Aid groups and government development agencies have great intentions and, yes, have saved many lives in poor nations. But they are often handicapped because they have to work on short-term budgets and shifting priorities, which can make coordination difficult.

They also have to "go along to get along" with host regimes, however unpalatable, which means they face many restraints on what they can do in terms of real civic change.

What this means is that the literally thousands of such agencies now active across the world generally lack the political heft and "strategic" long-term planning to fix failed states.


But how do the big donor nations such as the U.S., Canada, Britain, France and Brazil, achieve this, short of running Haiti for years as a UN mandate, which many would object to whether it improves the situation or not?

Here's where the hard part will emerge in the weeks ahead as recovery takes over from rescue.

Certainly there are scores of talented Haitians, at home and around the world, who can be called upon to serve in a new crisis government.

Still, the obvious need to guarantee honesty and transparency in terms of the tens of billions of dollars to be spent on recovery will require strong international oversight to avoid corruption.

Then there's the problem of public security, which will require probably tens of thousands of international troops for years to maintain order.

But at the very core of the problem is the extraordinarily difficult challenge of legal and governmental reform.

More than an engineering to-do list, Haiti needs clear laws, fairly enforced.

Give me hope

Who owns title to a piece of land? How is housing zoned? Where can one appeal injustice? All basic questions that need answering.

For too long the abused and misled poor have had no rights to turn to while Haiti's elites have thrived on the pickings of government weakness

"It's really critical that this not get lost," says William Loris of the International Development Law Institute in Rome. "You've got to figure out what is the state of the rule of law in Haiti and what are the strategies for improving it."

Numerous studies have concluded that unless justice becomes part of governance, countries such as Haiti face perpetual cycles of violence, disillusionment and competing power centres.

It should also be noted here that much injustice has also been imposed on Haiti.

U.S. and world trade laws have often discriminated against Haitian agricultural and textile products, fuelling chronic unemployment.

Reform is occurring in trade relations, but not fast or broadly enough.

The mind reels at the challenges facing the Montreal summit. How much money will be needed? How many legal experts, trade negotiators, soldiers, architects, urban designers, crisis managers, medical team leaders, UN and government mentors?

How much of a role will Canada (Haiti's second largest donor) need to play?

Nothing but the clearest possible response from the world community will offer the kind of hope Haiti now must have.

For the only hope likely to endure is one that is founded on a new partnership of trust between Haitians and their government, and between Haiti and the rest of the world.

It is also going to have to be one that clings to the stubborn belief that, this time, failure really is not an option.