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Re-imagining Haiti

Haiti, January 25, 2010

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Myanmar. Sichuan. Katrina. Aceh. Their names conjure awful scenes of destruction. In our response to these crises, what lessons have we learned? And how should we be applying them to Haiti, the troubled nation that was perhaps the least prepared of any for tragedy on this scale? As I pack my bags to head to Port-au-Prince, here are a few thoughts.

Don't just re-construct, but re-imagine. There's no silver lining to hundreds of thousands dead, a capital city flattened, a country in ruins. You can't find the good in that. But you can take a good hard look at what went wrong. The very scale of the destruction implicates the endemic poverty and weak governance that left Haiti defenseless before the 7.0 monster. Now we must mobilize our global resources to help the people of Haiti fully own their future. We must help empower Haitians to advocate for protections against future hazards, including effective building codes and appropriate legislation and mechanisms to enforce them. How many lives would have been spared if proven disaster risk reduction measures had been enacted? We must help Haitians see themselves as citizens who have the right -- and the responsibility -- to re-imagine their country.

Engage people in their own recovery. After a disaster, the best energy for recovery comes from those who were affected. Of course, outside aid is often necessary to help organize and channel local efforts, make connections, bridge the gaps. But it is the people whose lives were shattered who must be the main drivers of their own renewal. Knowing this, the most effective aid organizations focus their efforts on engaging communities in the rebuilding process. There are a number of ways to do this: job creation, vouchers, training, prioritizing local needs. In the chaos immediately following the Haiti earthquake, survivors dug through rubble with their bare hands to rescue trapped loved ones. They didn't wait for help. It is this resilience and resolve that will serve the Haitian people well as they rebuild their country.

Restore the local economy. After a disaster, the quicker we can restore normal commerce, the faster and more complete the recovery will be. Hiring people to rebuild their own communities affords them the dignity of earning a daily wage so they can purchase what their families need right away. Their spending, in turn, helps merchants get back on their feet and creates a positive ripple effect. New technologies will also play an increasingly important role in restoring local economies after disasters. Mobile phones can be used for remittances, cash vouchers and other ways of getting cash to survivors who need resources to rebuild.

Be fully accountable. When people around the globe open their hearts and their wallets to help others whose lives have been shattered, they deserve full accountability from the organizations they support. As responsible stewards of private, corporate and foundation gifts, agencies must report back to their supporters in a timely and transparent way. Not only is this the right thing to do, but also it will help build an engaged and informed citizenry who will act on global challenges, such as hunger and poverty, and insist that their political representatives act as well.

The Jan. 12 earthquake wreaked havoc in minutes. Haiti's rebuilding will take much longer. There are no quick fixes. What there is is the opportunity to re-imagine Haiti in a way that honors the many thousands of people who died.

This originally appeared in the online edition of the Oregonian.