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Haiti disaster is unprecedented and needs international support

Haiti, January 31, 2010

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Neal Keny-Guyer

The Seattle Times
January, 2010

LAST week, I left Port-au-Prince after spending a few days with Mercy Corps' team of expert emergency responders. My next stop was a world away: the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The two places couldn't be more different, but even in Davos, Haiti is front and center in people's minds.

Haiti is filled with tremendous devastation and suffering, as well as amazing examples of human resilience. Against a backdrop of so much tragedy and a growing number of triumphs, a few things come into sharp relief. These are my lessons from Haiti:

• This disaster is different. I talked to Mercy Corps' team and many other seasoned disaster responders, and all agreed that this is one of the toughest challenges they've ever faced. The earthquake dealt a traumatic blow to Haiti's government, the United Nations and many of our peer nongovernmental organizations. It choked off supply routes, and despite valiant efforts, flows of aid have been slower and more complicated than any of us would have liked.

• Locals must lead; the international community must support. I'm heartened by the outpouring of support from across the globe to help Haitians. But at the end of the day, it is the people of Haiti and their government who must rebuild this country in a way that's sustainable, economically viable and less likely to be crippled by a similar disaster in the future. It's our job to support them along the way.

• People are resilient. Everywhere we went in Haiti, we saw communities coming together and working toward their own recovery. In one neighborhood, locals had developed a detailed database of the population, their resources and their needs. In another, people quickly organized a committee to work with our water expert and had salvaged all possible bits of their damaged and destroyed homes. Despite their incredible losses, Haitians are not victims but empowered actors who only lack resources and opportunities.

• Enormous challenges remain. We're on a long road to recovery: We saw that immediate humanitarian needs for things like food, water and medical care are increasingly being met, but longer-term challenges are coming to the fore.

Shelter for as many as 800,000 new homeless is the most pressing need. There are few tents, and neighborhoods are usually a muddled mix of total destruction, dwellings desperately in need of repair and some lucky homes standing intact. The challenge of finding housing for so many people is enormous, and doing it in a way that preserves their dignity and provides consistent, quality sanitation, education and health services is even greater. This process should include encouraging and supporting host-family options, especially those in the provinces that many quake survivors call home.

Small businesses, stores, street vendors are opening all over Port-au-Prince, but prices are high, and no one has any income. Haitians — in Port-au-Prince and in the provinces outside the city — need jobs, loans and grants to replace homes, fishing boats, cars, bikes and other necessities to get around and earn a living. It will be critical to build lost and new industries such as tourism, apparel manufacturing and agriculture, and to attract foreign investors to ensure that jobs and economic stability are sustainable.

• Finally, this disaster won't be something that Haitians emotionally recover from in a few weeks or even a few months. Children — who don't have the same judgment and experience as adults — are devastated; they've seen parents, family members, classmates and caregivers killed or injured, homes and schools destroyed, and any stability they had is gone. How can Haiti's next generation heal and become part of the country's rebuilding?

Each of these dilemmas is great, but they are only a few in a seemingly endless list of challenges that Haiti faces. Recovery will be a long road in Haiti, and the international community should support Haitians every step of the way.

Neal Keny-Guyer is the CEO of the Northwest-based aid agency Mercy Corps.