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Campaigning for a new Haiti

Haiti, September 28, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Moise Mackendy, 23, was among a group of displaced students who helped Mercy Corps survey families in the Central Plateau. Photo: Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Saint Anne Dagny, 54, has been hit by disaster twice. Hurricane Hanna destroyed her home in the city of Gonaïves in 2008, and after the January 12 earthquake she was forced to move with her children to a displacement camp in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps

Campaigning is starting to get underway in Haiti, two months before the Presidential election scheduled on November 28.

For the last couple of months, much attention has focused on who is running for president — with Haitian-born hip hop star Wyclef Jean at the forefront of that discussion — but not what they plan to do. Now it's time for the candidates to answer that question.

In Haiti, hundreds of thousands of people still struggle to meet their daily needs for clean water, food, shelter, and toilets. Relief and development organizations like Mercy Corps are doing what they can to quell human suffering, but for many Haitians the emergency persists. They need a president who will help them end it. They need a president who will work with them to move from receiving aid to create lasting improvement: jobs, education and health care.

I’ve spoken with dozens of Haitians over the last several months about their situations. We’ve talked inside a boiling-hot tent in a displacement camp, in the remains of a crumbled church with tarps flapping violently in the wind, alongside a road choked with exhaust and littered with trash. And every time I ask: What do you want to see happen in Haiti now? I see faces light up and hear responses that verge on speeches, focused and full of determination and hope.

Some Haitians are clear about potential solutions, and how they can contribute. I met one such young man in Mirebalais, a town in the Central Plateau about twenty miles outside of Port-au-Prince. Moïse Mackendy is a 23-year-old student whose university studies in Port-au-Prince were put on indefinite hold by the earthquake. Like thousands of other survivors left homeless and grieving after the quake, he fled for the countryside shortly after January 12.

Mercy Corps gave Moïse temporary employment through our cash-for-work program, which is providing short-term work and emergency income to 20,000 families in the Central Plateau. We hired Moïse and dozens of others to conduct a survey of local families to find out how many displaced people they had taken in and how they were coping. Many families in this part of the country struggled to get by before the earthquake. Taking in additional people seriously strained their already meager resources.

“Before the earthquake, I was already disappointed by the governance in Haiti,” Moïse said. “But back then I didn’t take a position. I would just back up and say I’m not part of this mess. And now, since doing the survey and seeing the situation that families are in, I must take a position. I need to help make Haiti different. For 200 years, we’ve been in the same situation. January 12 could be a catalyst to change it.

“The two things that will be springboards for everything are education and agriculture,” Moïse continued. “Whether I will be a teacher or an agronomist, I want to feel like I am participating, that I am part of the change.”

For Haitians living in Port-au-Prince camps, the difficulty of their immediate situation is always front and center. But they are still determined to work toward a brighter future, especially for the sake of their kids. Sainte Anne Dagny, 54, lives with her three children at a camp called La Foi Apostolique, where Mercy Corps is providing clean water, latrines, and hygiene supplies.

“I’m really having a hard time,” Saint Anne confessed. “Camp life is hard. My 19-year-old daughter was sent home from university yesterday because I can’t pay for her classes.” She looked down at her hands, swollen from the odd jobs she’s found doing manual labor that provide only a little income. Then she returned hopefully to the subject of her daughter. “She’s a very modern, dynamic person. She’s studying computers. She plays basketball and tae kwon do. She makes me proud. I want to see her advance.

“I need a job,” Sainte Anne said. “I need scholarships for my kids.”

Haitians know they have far to go, but they share a powerful vision for what they want their country to be. They need a presidential candidate who can translate that vision into action — and work with them to build the Haiti they so clearly see.