x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A tragedy and an opportunity in stricken Haiti

About 80 per cent of college graduates leave the country. If the brain drain could be reversed, there is an educated, capable middle class waiting in the wings.

A full week after the Haiti earthquake, a 69-year-old woman was rescued from the ruins of a Roman Catholic church. Three other women were pulled from the rubble the same night. Rescue workers continue to play a vital role as aftershocks rattle Port-au-Prince, but it is also time to focus on the long-term recovery effort. Alongside the miracle rescues and strength of spirit shown in the earthquake's aftermath, there have been the worst examples of human brutality in scuffles for food and water, looting and theft, and the resurgence of the country's cut-throat gangs. Lawlessness has always been Haiti's bane - it must be curbed not only to prevent further suffering but also to allow recovery efforts a chance at success. For the time being, US soldiers have already made a difference.

Western countries will walk a delicate line between help and harm in the country. Haitians' strong sense of identity comes, in part, from opposition to white colonialism and the epochal slave rebellion that won its independence in 1803. While it sorely needs international aid, that assistance must not come at even the perception of a loss of sovereignty. The success of recovery efforts - not only short-term emergency response, but building a better social and physical infrastructure from the ground up - will ultimately depend on the Haitians themselves. The fractures in the president René Préval's government are hardly promising. But the earthquake has created a dire need, and opportunity, for strong leadership. Equally, the Haitian diaspora, particularly in the United States, which has been so effusive in its sympathy towards the battered nation, will be tested by its actual assistance. About 80 per cent of college graduates leave the country. If the brain drain could be reversed, and the post-disaster exodus stemmed, there is an educated, capable middle class waiting in the wings.

The temporary calm provided by foreign security forces has to be better utilised than the 1990s US occupation to prop up the former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. There is already a proven model of economic assistance through grants and investment. The question will be if lessons learnt from nation-building from Afghanistan to Liberia can provide the template for a successful project in the Americas.

There are valid doubts about the ability of the Haitian leadership to marshal the will needed, and the international community's long-term commitment. Foreign aid to mitigate the disaster is simply a matter of humanity. But there is also an extraordinary, if unfortunate, opportunity. For other countries - particularly the United States, which so badly bungled the Katrina disaster under the previous administration - there is a chance to show global leadership by a sustained, peaceful project of nation-building in its own back yard. For Haiti, there is a chance - perhaps a slim one - to rebuild the nation on stronger foundations.