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Renewal, not restoration, should be the goal for Haiti

Earthquake survivors walk through the mud after heavy rains hit the makeshift tent city at the Petionville Golf Club in Port-au-Prince this month.
Earthquake survivors walk through the mud after heavy rains hit the makeshift tent city at the Petionville Golf Club in Port-au-Prince this month. (Jorge Saenz/associated Press)

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By Ban Ki-moon
Monday, March 29, 2010

The Petionville Golf Club sits on a hillside overlooking Port-au-Prince and the sea. These days, its once-groomed fairways are home to nearly 50,000 people, among the 1.2 million displaced by the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January. They are crowded together in tents or tarpaulin lean-tos provided by the United Nations or international relief agencies.

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When I visited two weeks ago, the sun was shining. Life went on, it seemed: children played, mothers washed clothes in open-air tubs. Many people had set up businesses and informal markets selling food, charcoal, fruit, shoes, shampoo. In the sunlight it might be easy to see this as a sign of hope, life amid the ruins. But soon the seasonal rains will begin in earnest. The steeply sloping ground will turn to mud, dangerous and diseased. For those trapped in the camp, hope will seem far away.

On Wednesday, world leaders gather at U.N. headquarters in New York for a critical donors conference -- a tangible expression of solidarity with the Haitian government and its people. Haitian President René Préval calls it a "rendezvous with history," a compact to build what he calls "a new Haiti," a Haiti transformed. It is a mission to offer (and deliver) hope.

For weeks, experts have been assessing the needs and costs of the disaster. In tandem, Haiti's president and government have worked out a strategic national "action plan" to guide recovery and development. It is a visionary document.

Touring his devastated capital with U.N. special envoy Bill Clinton, one top Haitian official pointed out the ruined national parliament and presidential palace. "We don't want to restore them," he said of the collapsed colonial-style landmarks. He spoke of replacing them with something modern and more suited to Haiti's ambitions for itself as a self-reliant developing nation with genuine hope for a fresh start and prosperous future.

That is our challenge in New York -- not to rebuild but to "build back better," to create a new Haiti. Under the plan, an Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission would channel nearly $4 billion into specific projects and programs during the next 18 months. Over the next 10 years, reconstruction needs will total an estimated $11.5 billion.

Clearly, this assistance must be well-spent and well-coordinated. It must provide for continuing emergency relief: food, sanitation and, most urgently at this moment, shelter. So far we have provided 1 million people (roughly three-quarters of those in need) with tents and tarpaulins. We will distribute 300,000 more in the next few weeks. We now have a number of major sites around Port-au-Prince where we can relocate people from areas vulnerable to flooding when the rainy season begins in earnest. Meanwhile, the U.N. mission is taking all measures to maintain security and, in particular, ensure that women and children in the camps can be safe from sexual violence.

As we move from emergency aid to longer-term reconstruction, let us recognize that we cannot accept business as usual. What we envision today is nothing less than a wholesale national renewal.

In partnership with the international community, Haiti's leaders are committing to a new social contract with their people. That means fully democratic government, grounded in sound economic and social policies that address extreme poverty and deep-rooted disparities of wealth. It also means fair and free elections, conducted with U.N. help, preferably by the end of this year.

This social contract must empower women -- as heads of households providing for their families, as entrepreneurs developing businesses, as advocates for the vulnerable, with full rights as decision makers in evolving democratic institutions and civic action organizations. It must offer new opportunities for economic advancement -- above all, jobs. The U.N. cash-for-work program should be a model. At the end of the day, only Haitians can build Haiti back better.

Haiti's leaders are well aware that this new partnership requires a commitment to good governance, transparency and mutual accountability -- between the government and the governed, between the public and private sectors, between Haiti and the international community. It requires fresh approaches to long-standing problems. Among them: the future of Haiti's overcrowded capital. If Haiti is to flourish, social infrastructure and economic development must be dispersed from Port-au-Prince to regions and cities throughout the country. That is why Haiti's national plan contains ample provision for environmental recovery, land reform, and new investment in fisheries and agriculture.

During the coming days, the world's leaders will rise to stand by Haiti -- a solidarity to be measured in years, long after the initial shock of disaster has passed. I am confident that, together, we can set Haiti on the road to a very different future.

The work of building that promised tomorrow begins today in places such as the Petionville camp, most immediately by moving tens of thousands of people to safety. Ultimately, we must offer something far less tangible but infinitely more sustaining: hope. For Haiti, real hope begins this Wednesday.

The writer is secretary general of the United Nations.


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