Rich countries must prepare long-term effort to help Haiti

Thursday, January 21, 2010; A20

FIVE YEARS after the tsunami unleashed its destructive fury in the Indian Ocean, large-scale reconstruction is still underway in Aceh, the Indonesian region where an estimated 200,000 people died. In Haiti, where the scale of damage and death from last week's earthquake may be roughly comparable -- but whose challenges in rebuilding are even greater -- recovery is likely to be an even longer process. The United States and other major international donors should prepare for that long-term commitment to help with humanitarian, logistical, engineering and nation-building tasks but without raising false hopes that outside aid alone will deliver Haiti.

In the wake of wars, natural disasters and political upheavals, international donor conferences are notorious for pledging far more assistance than eventually is delivered. In Haiti, where an epic calamity has afflicted the nerve center of a desperately poor country, there must be real follow-through. Billions of dollars will be needed to help Haiti clear its rubble, rebuild its shattered basic infrastructure, help its shell-shocked government reconstitute itself and provide basic shelter to hundreds of thousands of people who lack it.

The rebuilding effort should provide a badly needed initial stimulus for the country's supine economy. As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon observed after he toured the ruins of Port-au-Prince the other day, enormous numbers of Haitian youths are in the streets with nothing to do -- no jobs, no homes, no hopes; the longer they are idle, the more they will pose a threat to the capital's tenuous security. They must be put to work clearing roads and rubble. The United Nations is already providing some cash for that work, and the World Bank is considering a food-for-work program.

At the same time, helping the Haitian government with administrative, technical and reconstruction expertise is critical both to safeguard Haiti's sense of sovereignty and as an investment in the future. In the long term, no superstructure of international donors, no matter how well intentioned and coordinated, will be successful without the partnership of a functioning Haitian government.

For decades Haiti has been one of the world's most vexing basket cases, a country practically overrun with governmental and charitable aid agencies whose efforts seemed to barely affect the profound poverty. It may be too much to imagine the developed world will now somehow "get Haiti right" or make it into some suddenly prosperous Caribbean tiger. But there are ways to improve on previous efforts.

One is by constancy; donors cannot be allowed to lose interest when the television cameras depart. Another is by encouraging, training and supporting Haitians to take a more active hand in reconstruction and aid projects. Donors and aid organizations cannot neglect the Haitian countryside, whose grinding poverty has encouraged the unsustainable growth of Port-au-Prince. Establishing systems of accountability in the disbursement of aid and nurturing Haitian civil society will also help minimize the corruption for which Haiti has become notorious.

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