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Rebuilding a Future for Haiti: in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, a commitment of crucial support has emerged from the community of institutions that form the inter-American system.


Albert Ramdin has traveled to Haiti many times in the past ten years. But no trip was like the one he took there in early February, three weeks after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, killing an estimated 217,000 people, injuring over 300,000, leaving 1.9 million people homeless, and destroying the country's already struggling economy.

"We knew the situation was not great, but those images on TV are nothing compared to actually being there, seeing a country completely collapsed, and the devastation on the faces of its people," said Ramdin, Assistant Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) and chairman of the OAS Haiti Task Force. "I knew many people who died in the earthquake--ministers, policymakers, friends, family members, their kids. They did not even have time to grieve."

Ramdin said it was a miracle that the OAS headquarters in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville was left untouched by the quake. It was immediately offered for use by the Haitian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"We are now establishing a Haiti coordinating office. My next visit to Haiti will be to make our OAS office fully operational," Ramdin explained. "We are not going to be able to finance hundreds of millions in reconstruction. Our role instead will be to assist in strengthening governance and building technical capacity." The Inter-American Development Bank estimates it will cost nearly $14 billion to rebuild Haiti's homes, schools, roads, and other infrastructure. That makes the January 12 earthquake the most destructive natural disaster in modern times when viewed in relation to the size of Haiti's population and economy.


After a two-day visit to Haiti, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza echoed Ramdin's impressions. "This has been the greatest natural disaster of our lives. There is not a single street that has not lost a significant number of homes. The population is still traumatized by the experience and by the fear of new tremors." He also noted that international aid is playing, and must continue to play, a fundamental role in helping the victims and rebuilding Haiti.

"Haiti can recover, but it will require enormous courage from policymakers," said Ramdin. "Are we going to have a country where every five years you have fifteen elections taking place? It's about time to look at that, and maybe have one election for president and legislative bodies. This is the time for structural changes in Haiti. The world cannot spend $14 billion and see everything collapse again because of wrong decisions."

In this sense, he said, Haiti is at the top of the OAS political agenda and will remain there for some time. "We have mobilized financial resources with our partners and facilitated coordination among the various inter-American institutions: the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the Inter-American Institute for Agriculture (IICA), the Inter-American Defense Board, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)."

"Beyond the physical and economic damage, the Haitian people will require a lot of mental and psychological assistance to overcome this," he said. "The Haitian people will need assistance beyond repairing the damage and rebuilding the economy. But Haiti can recover. And we must keep Haiti very high on the agenda."

One of the most crucial agencies on the ground in Haiti right now is PAHO, which was immediately designated as the lead coordinator for all health issues. Every afternoon, "cluster" meetings are convened, with 200-some NGO representatives who have arrived in Haiti to offer assistance. Work is divided into subgroups for specific tasks, like the management of mobile clinics, damaged hospitals, and stationary clinics in the 600 or so new settlement areas that have sprung up literally overnight because people were afraid to go back into their homes.

Dr. Jon K. Andrus, Deputy Director of PAHO, explained that, "we are now re-establishing primary care services so that patients with chronic diseases such as tuberculosis, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS can receive the necessary treatment they would have received without the earthquake. We're also providing vaccines now, particularly to pregnant women. We know that before the earthquake struck, about 20 percent of babies were born prematurely. And now, with this kind of stress, we estimate premature births will go up to 30 or 35 percent of the total. The big concerns now, given the upcoming rainy season, are malaria and dengue fever, particularly in the 600 resettlement camps. When the rains start, hygiene and sanitation make it very challenging to sustain what were already vulnerable conditions."

PAHO Director Mirta Roses has said that, "going forward, our greatest challenge will be to resist any tendency to assume the leadership function that properly belongs to the Haitian people and government. Our job must be to help Haitians restore their own authority over their country." Roses noted that Haiti's Ministry of Health lost about 200 staff members when its offices collapsed in the quake. Many Haitian doctors and nurses were killed or injured, and many health facilities were damaged or crippled. Over the longer term, Roses said, "Haiti will need help to rebuild its damaged health infrastructure, build institutional capacity, improve the health system in affected areas, and lay the foundation for a permanent, sustainable national health system."

Amy Coughenour is deputy director of PADF, which has been active in Haiti for over 30 years. PADF currently has 155 staffers working out of seven regional offices in addition to its Port-au-Prince country office. "We were very fortunate in that about 80 percent of our buildings were OK, and the 20 percent that was damaged was repaired, so we are fully operational," she said, explaining that PADF's portfolio in Haiti ranges from $12 million to $14 million a year. "Our mission here is to empower Haitians to carry out their own long-term sustainable development--so our focus is on long-term results, empowering communities, Haitian civil society, and the Haitian government. That shows in the way we work, and with whom we work."

PADF's three areas of focus are its ongoing program in community development and human rights, immediate relief (which includes food, water, tents, medicine, and basic supplies), and recovery and reconstruction. "We've served over 114,000 people and we donated over 100 tons of supplies immediately after the earthquake." With regard to recovery and reconstruction, Coughenour said that PADF has been busy offering "cash for work" programs to unemployed Haitians, clearing rubble and draining ditches to aid communities and jump-start the informal economy.

Coughenour said "there is a very valid fear," given the numerous powerful aftershocks that have terrified Port-au-Prince and its environs, "but if we can go in and structurally assess the home with an engineer, we can tag it green. Tagging it green it gives people the green light to live in their homes again. And that's going to be really critical once the rains start coming. The green tag won't guarantee that people will use their homes again, but at least they'll know there wasn't any damage sustained by the earthquake."

PADF's third priority is its human rights program, focused primarily on women and children who have been victims of violence, trauma, or trafficking--all common problems in Haiti.

"As a result of the earthquake, this vulnerable population has increased," said Coughenour. "What we are trying to do is address this growing violence against women and children and the growing population of unaccompanied minors. We're ramping up child protection activities to infuse more training, resources, and services."


A detailed study by the IDB concluded that the cost of rebuilding Haiti's homes, schools, roads, and other infrastructure could amount to nearly $14 billion. "My own country, Colombia, is exposed to various types of natural disasters," said IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno. "In 1999, two earthquakes destroyed over 100,000 buildings and left half a million people homeless in the 'coffee axis,' an area that is key for the national economy. It was the worst disaster in Colombian history, but we recovered." Moreno suggested that the IDB can play a crucial role in Haiti as it did in Colombia, El Salvador, and other countries devastated by recent disasters. Shortly after the quake struck, Moreno visited Port-au-Prince and toured the district where the bank had its offices. He also inspected the site of an encampment for people left homeless by the quake and discussed the IDB's potential role in helping turn the encampment into a neighborhood with permanent housing and basic services. "The enormous challenge of rebuilding Haiti is beginning for the bank. Now we need the commitment of our member countries in a difficult task that will take years. The solidarity of Latin America and the Caribbean needs to stay strong long after the harrowing images of the disaster vanish from the media."



Action in Chile

by Dr. James Patrick Kiernan

In the aftermath of the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Chile on Saturday, February 27, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza declared that "in the name of the Organization and all its member countries I offer the Government of Chile and all Chileans a fraternal embrace of solidarity and hope. Chile can count on all the cooperation that the OAS can provide."

Representatives of the principal inter-American institutions have also offered their condolences and solidarity to the government and the people of Chile. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) announced that the first foreign field hospitals from Argentina and Peru had already arrived in Chile and will be deployed to areas where the local hospitals sustained severe damage. PAHO has produced guidelines on how to ensure that mobile field hospitals will satisfy expectations and not place an undue burden on local health authorities. Luis Alberto Moreno, President of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), offered the support of the IDB to the government of Chile. "Our hearts go out to the people of Chile," he said, "and we share their sorrow at the human suffering this natural disaster has brought. We stand by them and are ready to assist in any way we can."

Despite the high standards of anti-seismic construction that have been applied in Chile for some time, the earthquake left close to 800 dead, two million injured or affected, and a million people homeless. It also caused serious damage to infrastructure, especially ports, airports, hospitals, and schools.


Larry Luxner, a freelance journalist and photographer, is a frequent contributor to Americas.
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Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2010
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