As I walked on the tarmac Sunday at Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, a physician – who had just landed in Haiti on the same United Airlines plane I was about to board – walked toward me wearing his doctor’s garb. Grave concern showed on his face.
“What is it like out there?” he asked me, referring to the pulverized city beyond the airport gates.
“What do you do?” I replied.
“I’m a surgeon,” he said.
“Oh, you will have plenty to do,” I shot back, as I rolled my luggage unto the stairs to the jumbo Boeing.
I sat down quickly in the business class area. It felt so relaxing to sit on a soft object after two weeks of makeshift chairs and laying on a sleeping bag, I savored the seat for a moment. Then, I began contemplating what I’ve witnessed and what it will take to get Haiti out of its misery.
That doctor was one of hundreds of volunteers who have flown down to give Haiti a hand. Hundreds more will follow him, a small gesture to the Haitian people, who are in dire need of everything at this time.
But in due time, the list of volunteers will dwindle as people return to their normal routine and Haiti stops making the front page of the newspapers and the top segment of the television networks.
This story, as catastrophic as it is, has its shelf life. Other, bigger and more pressing issues will inevitably come up.
At one point, and soon enough, Haitians and those living overseas, will have to take the ball to the finish line. I am surprised that during the two weeks I was in Haiti, nothing great had happened in the community. There have been meetings, but no grand plan to articulate the role that Haitian Diaspora will play.
What we need right now is for the leadership in the community, such as it is, to organize a summit to come up with a solid proposal to help Haiti out of its morass.
The community needs to make a Herculean effort to recruit the professionals among our ranks. There should be a group of financial experts to help raise funds and lure investors. That team can be a liaison with the Bush/Clinton initiative created by President Obama to raise money for the reconstruction of Haiti. It should be made up of bankers, financial executives and people with proven track records in the business world.
Another group should consist of technocrats such as urban planners, economists, transportation experts, engineers, doctors, nurses, educators and social scientists who know how to build societies.
We need to incorporate a political group. This is the team that ostensibly navigates the needs of the Haitian government and of the foreign interest, and ensures that misunderstandings are kept to a minimum, that issues are resolved before we move forward. This is the team where activists, union organizers and political experts of all stripes will be needed to balance any monkey wrench that inevitably rears its ugly head and can derail even the best of intentions and plans.
An integrated marketing communications team of proven veterans and young idealists is needed to craft and disseminate messages to all stakeholders. This is an area where Haitians are sorely lacking. We seem to have the expertise on just about everything, except how to articulate the work we have done.
Once this team is assembled, the next step is to convene that summit and craft a plan of development on how Haitians in the United States can be part of the solution of rebuilding their native country.
The challenges facing Haiti are enormous. The destruction is deeper than the television camera can describe. One has to be there to see it.
Port-au-Prince had been overpopulated for more than 30 years and its growth continued unchecked. Government policy did little to discourage arbitrary construction. The city and its suburbs had become a giant slum. Now, this major capital city must be rebuilt and the current government has shown no indication that it is able to meet the challenges ahead.
I remember Tatiana Wah, a friend and an urban development expert, saying all the time that what Haiti needs is a bulldozer to raze those buildings and start anew. Obviously, no one had the guts to bring that bulldozer while everything was “fine.”
Getting street vendors to clear streets, sidewalks that they had invaded, was always an issue. Whenever someone would bring it up, he or she was accused of being insensitive at best and an enemy of the poor at worst. It was as if selling your goods in the streets was a right.
The right of the majority of people be damned. I don’t want to dwell on the past here, but we must understand how we got to where we are today and what it will take to fix it tomorrow.
This is no time for the faint of heart and the politically correct rhetoric. The work ahead is long and arduous. The government should be pushed to open the country to outsiders and enforce the codes that are in the books. We can’t continue to operate the way we’ve been in the last 200 years.
If there is any positive out of this earthquake, it’s that Mother Nature has done for us what was necessary, what no man had the courage or the ability to do it. The first way to help Port-au-Prince is to turn our back on it. I mean, we have an opportunity to decentralize the country by federalizing it and making sure each department has its own autonomy and offices to assist the population. People no longer have to trek to Port-au-Prince for the most ordinary thing, like getting a passport.
This was what created an unlivable city in the first place. I would go so far as to build a new political capital and leave Port-au-Prince as the commercial and cultural capital. I have an old map of the city and it wasn’t built for such a large amount of people. It was a middle class city where intellectuals and artisans congregated on the Champs-de-Mars to exchange ideas. It should be restored to its original grandeur.
Clearly, Haiti is going to need all of the help it can get. I believe that those of us who have had the privilege of attending the best schools in the United States and elsewhere owe it to ourselves to lend a hand. No matter what, Haiti is our home. We cannot sit back and watch others try to help. We need to stand up and be counted at this gravest moment. Are you ready for the challenge?