The first thing that you noticed when you arrive in Port-au-Prince is how dirty it is. Garbage piles are everywhere. Putrid odor permeates the smog engulfing the teeming capital of more than 2 million people. Residents routinely litter the streets and dump their household trash along the side of the road.

This situation not only creates a health hazard, it is also a set back for economic development.

To be fair, the government has tried to tackle this problem with regular garbage pick up. There are even Public Service Announcements on television telling people not to litter. But the heap is simply too much and it is a habit that most people simply can’t seem to break out of.

It is time that the population realizes that it’s not in their best interest to dump garbage on the streets. The irony here is that you walk inside the poorest person’s house in Haiti and it is immaculately clean, be it modest. So why do people think it’s fine not to extend their personal courtesy to the general populace.

Part of the problem lies some 40 years ago when Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier decided that he would bring thousands of people in the countryside to sing his praises whenever he had a foreign dignitary in town.

Their transportation was paid and a few gourdes were handed to them. They liked the bright lights of the big city and stayed, creating a metropolitan area that is for the most part grossly overpopulated. Despite paying lip services to decentralization, the government has not been able to curb this trend and if it continues unchecked, it will be to the country’s detriment.

These days Haiti is experimenting a bit of good public relations and government officials are making bold statements about the country’s readiness to welcome investors. “Haiti is open for business” is a current catch phrase.

Obviously this bravado is not backing up by much, except a few high profile projects and people determine to turn things around. But a clean place will do wonders for investments.

Now that the security problem is somewhat under control, the government should focus on the next issue: cleanliness in the capital and other major cities, where the problem is most acute.

There should be fines for people who litter and the public relations campaign should be accelerated and broaden. We urge the media in Haiti to provide free space and air-time in this effort. The Haitian Times is making the first move to be part of such outreach.

Then a serious and strategic effort to decentralize the major cities, particularly, the capital, should be underway.

A safe and clean country is at the foundation of economic development. Having dealt with the first one, it’s time to tackle the second. This is an effort that doesn’t require a great deal of money. The government can enlist a legion of volunteers to take part on a cleaning campaign the same way people did when Jean Bertrand Aristide was elected president in 1990 and again when he returned from exile in 1994. We are not a dirty people so we should be asking ourselves why are our cities so filthy. We need to take a look in the mirror and judge ourselves for this collective failure and not point fingers at others.

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