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Canada in Haiti: Beyond anything we have attempted before

Carlo Dade


Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Canadian soldiers provide medical aid to earthquake casualties.
This reproduction is a copy of an official work that is published by the Government of Canada and it has not been produced in affiliation with, or with the endorsement of the Government of Canada. 

If we in Canada and the international community are to have any real hope of success in Haiti it will require more than a long-term commitment, more than money and more than coordination from the international community.

It will require reaching beyond the usual suspects in government and NGOs to include the Haitian diaspora, the private sector, provincial governments, citizens and, most critically, the media.

And most important and most difficult, it will require our sustained attention. It has not yet been a month since the disaster and Haiti is drifting from the front pages and public attention. Soon it may disappear completely from the Canadian media as did the Asian tsunami.

Without media attention and strong public support it is unlikely that Canada could sustain the level of effort required for success in Haiti, let alone for leadership at the international level.

Haiti will be a difficult and complex task for several reasons. In two recent examples of natural disasters, the Asian tsunami and the Kashmir earthquake, limited areas of the countries involved were impacted and their much stronger governments and institutions were able to respond and work with donors. In Haiti, over a quarter of the population has been devastated with virtually the entirety of an already weak government savaged and left operating from the rubble. Not only will donors have to face administering billons of dollars for reconstruction and millions of homeless, but they will also have to rebuild and strengthen the government so that it can help donors to help the government to help the country. The complexity of that sentence is an indication of what lies ahead. Further, as opposed to Kashmir and the Asian tsunami countries, Haiti had just last year been hit by four hurricanes, causing an estimated US$900 million in damage or roughly 14 per cent of the country’s GDP.

While the challenges Canada will face in Haiti are larger and more complex than anything it has dealt with before, they are, in some ways, not as severe or not as dangerous. The country does not have hostile neighbours, intractable centuries-old dogmatic disputes, car bombs or improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Instead, Canada faces the challenges of extreme poverty, underdevelopment and institutional weakness in a country that is only roughly four hours away from our nation’s capital, a country where it has long been involved and where it shares one of the two official languages.

Still, the earthquake and its aftermath render these challenges almost unfathomable in their scope, depth, complexity and immediacy. It is, and can no longer be, business as usual in Haiti. So, how do we proceed, let alone succeed?

First, we must truly recognize the task at hand. When phrases such as “Marshall Plan” are used, one needs to pay attention, not lip service.

Second, the complexity and resource demands necessitate a rethinking of the architecture of the Canadian and international response. Before the earthquake, Ottawa’s engagement in Haiti had produced some modest success. This was no small achievement. Yet, if current institutions, structures and development approaches were only able to produce modest achievements pre-earthquake, will this level of success, and these institutions, be enough to confront the new challenges facing Haiti?

The international community is responding with innovative solutions. The eminent development economist and United Nations special advisor on Haiti, Paul Collier, has proposed the creation of a new single “Haiti Fund” to pool international resources and co-ordinate reconstruction. There is still time for Canada to consider innovative structures and most important amongst these will be the coordination of donors and NGOs.

Third, a much needed innovation is a whole-of-Canada approach to augment the traditional whole-of-government approach and make this a truly national project. This requires going from Corner Brook to Kamloops to explain to Canadians the intervention and the sacrifices it requires, especially given looming federal and provincial deficits.

Fourth, we must get the private sector on board now, to leverage their resources, entrepreneurial zeal and to engage in reconstruction. And this has to go beyond one province. Participation from companies across Canada will build support, drive down costs, increase transparency and lessen room for corruption. The Haitian diaspora is already playing a crucial role and is eager to do more as seen in the recommendations on the facilitation of diaspora involvement it made to international donors at a 2004 Montreal meeting. It is time to put these recommendations into action. For the private sector and the diaspora, long-term mechanisms and initiatives, preferably outside of government, are needed to facilitate their cooperation.

Fifth, there are lessons to be drawn from the Afghanistan file: there was a window of opportunity at the very beginning of the mission for a thoughtful, fully enabled, national dialogue to forge consensus and to build public and private sector support. In the case of Haiti, another such window is open while the media is focused, Canadians are connected and images on TV make the case for engagement. Successful outreach programs such as Afghanistan360° will need to be replicated and vastly amplified.

Finally, this effort will need a champion. Of the three countries to emerge as leaders in efforts to rebuild Haiti, Brazil has President Lula who has championed the cause of Haiti in the Americas and will be free to do more when he steps down next year; the United States is led by former President Bill Clinton, joined recently by former President George Bush, and in Canada we have … a vacancy.

If Barrack Obama can reach out to George Bush and the latter can accept, then surely Canada can find someone of a similar standing.

The Canadian government has so far done much and done it well in response to the earthquake in Haiti: it sent timely emergency funding, deployed the Disaster Assistance Response Team and swiftly organized an international donors meeting in Montreal with a diaspora spokesperson to open the event.

The next steps will be just as crucial. The challenges are severe but not insurmountable. There is nothing that is beyond the technical capacities of Canada, Haitians and the international community. That we have not had success elsewhere does not mean that we are doomed to failure in Haiti.

Just the opposite.

Lessons from elsewhere and the severity of the task in Haiti can prompt new approaches, innovation, refocused energy and eventual success, but only if Canada, Haiti and the international community can maintain their goal. And for that to happen it cannot be business as usual.blue square

Carlo Dade is the Executive Director of FOCAL and manages the Canadian Engagement in Haiti program.

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