Commission starts preparing plans for Haiti's rebirth

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010; A06

PETIONVILLE, HAITI -- Here on the hills above Port-au-Prince, a vision for a very different capital city is taking shape.

In a loft of architectural offices, a map of greater Port-au-Prince promises a reordering of the country's historic capital, overtaken long ago by sprawl and slums and struck last month by a cataclysmic earthquake.

"Expressway" is etched along the city's winding seaboard. "New Housing Area" is written over a swath of undeveloped land far from the detritus of downtown. And "Debris" is written in several spots where it is to be put to constructive use.

Presiding over the map, and over the massive reconstruction effort that will define the country for generations, is a Haitian-born Howard University graduate who serves as Haiti's tourism minister.

Working out of spare space far from his destroyed downtown offices, Patrick Delatour must sell a future for Haiti to his own people and an audience of international donors, who will help fund an urban rebirth starting from virtually zero.

"This," he said, looking out the window as his police driver navigated the swells of a ramshackle back alley, "is urban development without urbanism, architecture without architects, engineering without engineers."

Although the international response to the Jan. 12 earthquake was swift, the international role in reconstruction is still taking shape, slowed by the scale of the humanitarian crisis and freighted by the often prickly relationship between the Western hemisphere's poorest country and the foreign actors who have loomed so large in its history.

The earthquake has spurred talk of remaking not only the capital and the country, but those complicated ties between Haiti and the rest of the world. Foreign governments, concerned about corruption, have long channeled much of their aid through nongovernmental organizations. That arrangement, some Haitians say, has stunted the Haitian government's own development and given the NGOs an outsize role that comes with little accountability for the country's persistent poverty.

Since the earthquake, foreign government and international organizations have been trying to send a different message, noting, at almost every opportunity, the role that the Haitian government has played in the rescue and relief operations and the leading role that it will play in the reconstruction of the country.

Next month in New York, the international community's commitment to Haiti's reconstruction will face its first big test. At a meeting of donor nations and international organizations, the Haitian government is to present its preliminary reconstruction plan, which it hopes will set the stage for a large and lasting commitment by the rest of the world.

Even before he knows precisely what sort of help his country will receive, Delatour has been talking to, among others, the French government and a number of American universities about providing technical assistance in planning and other disciplines critical to this early phase of the reconstruction effort.

Still, he said, Haiti's reconstruction must be shaped by the Haitian government and the Haitian people. "I'm confident in Haiti's ability to offer the leadership that is necessary."

Before the earthquake, about a quarter of Haiti's nearly 10 million people lived in and around Port-au-Prince, many of them in dozens of slums that dot the capital region.

But the problems that have imperiled Port-au-Prince have some of their roots in distant, desperate corners of Haiti that for years have sent so many of their young people to the big city in search of work.

As the country's leaders cast the earthquake as an opportunity to remake the capital, the outcome of their efforts could turn as much on creating jobs in agriculture and tourism as drawing up a charming esplanade and a bigger airport for Port-au-Prince.

So it is that an architect and preservationist who has been championing the promise of tourism in places like Labadee and Fort Liberte, far from the capital, has emerged as a key government voice on the rebuilding of Port-au-Prince and the remaking of Haiti.

In a post that promises plentiful contact with the U.S. government, Delatour is no stranger to Washington. As a teenager, he moved to the District, where he finished high school at Coolidge Senior High before studying architecture at Howard. He returned to Haiti for a time before studying historic preservation at Columbia University, where he received a master's degree. For the past three decades, he has worked in the private and public sectors in Haiti.

The commission that Delatour leads is drawing on architects, planners, bankers and others from the private and public sectors to work on setting up short-term shelter, clearing the wreckage and creating a new urban model. Among those who have been enlisted is Leslie Voltaire, an influential figure in Haitian politics who has a master's degree in city planning from Cornell University and is spearheading the commission's urban planning effort. As a veteran international emissary, Voltaire, even more than Delatour, brings to the job a familiarity with the United States and other foreign stakeholders.

The office here in Petionville is not the war-room environment one might expect. There are no whiteboards full of color-coded task lists. There are no PowerPoint presentations or overhead projectors. And there is no cacophony of office conversation -- only the din of the street market below.

From behind a big desk, Delatour juggles a pair of BlackBerry devices and confers with a small cast of aides huddled around a circular table. They are discussing a February deadline for a report for the country's top officials. Everyone is using small notepads until architect Henry Robert Jolibois arrives with his silver MacBook.

On this afternoon at least, there is no talk of grand visions and sweeping changes. The conversations are more bureaucratic. At one point, the blizzard in Washington comes up. A World Bank contractor in Washington who is supposed to travel to Haiti to help organize its needs assessment has been stranded by a snowstorm that seems almost unfathomable here in the Haiti's stultifying heat.

But to talk to Delatour and to economists and historians and other intellectuals, a vision is emerging of a city that while perhaps still the capital would no longer plays the central role that led one Haitian historian to call it the Republic of Port-au-Prince.

In the rebuilt Haiti they envision, government would be decentralized, with many state functions and jobs moved outside of Port-au-Prince. Tourism would be built up in the provinces. Agriculture would be bolstered. And industry, which already has a presence in textiles, would be given the incentives to capitalize on the prospect of more tourists and more agricultural products.

On the streets of the city, where the ordinary people hardest hit by the quake come and go, little is known about the government's plans. Asking about expressways and esplanades elicits quizzical looks. For most people here, before and especially since the quake, the concerns are simply too day-to-day to be indulging in fanciful conversations.

"The first thing would be clean the streets," Sabine Desgraviers, 26, said last week as she walked near the university hospital downtown. She was also concerned about the lack of jobs and reliable public transportation. But the earthquake had hardly given her hope that anything was going to change. "I don't see anything that can fix the country anymore," she said. "Only God can fix the country."

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