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5 years on, hope for Haiti

Thomas Streit: Locals key to Haiti earthquake recovery

Thomas Streit | 1/13/2015, noon
Haiti is a tough place, something that's especially so for its millions of poor, of course, but also for the ...
A group of men sifts through the rubble in Haiti on Thursday, January 14, 2010. Rescue workers are searching for people in the destruction, and there are still no confirmed numbers of how many people died in Tuesday's earthquake. Photo: Rich Phillips/CNN

— Haiti is a tough place, something that's especially so for its millions of poor, of course, but also for the country's middle and upper classes, and foreign visitors. But no matter their status, everyone in the greater Port-au-Prince area on January 12, 2010, was witness to unspeakable horror, when at least 200,000 died in a massive earthquake.

Tragically, much of the carnage resulted not from what was a large but still not catastrophic geologic event, but from widespread poverty and poor construction standards that turned entire blocks of buildings into death traps. And this week, as the country has been marking the anniversary of one of the most deadly disasters in human history, the grinding misery of the hemisphere's poorest country is once again being reflected upon.

There's still plenty to think about. For a start, Haiti still has the highest infant mortality and unemployment rates in the hemisphere, as well as the lowest life expectancy and daily income. Compounding this problem is the persistent "brain drain," which is seeing large numbers of the nation's young and brightest -- a would-be middle class -- leave the country. Meanwhile, there is political gridlock, which is hampering the ongoing recovery, with the continuing stalemate prompting the December resignation of another prime minister.

Still, despite the challenges, there are some signs of hope.

For a start, the economy has been growing, helped by the current government's focus on the tourism and education sectors. And despite continuing problems with widespread hunger as earthquake-related nongovernmental organizations continue to exit, agricultural reforms are making a difference.

But perhaps one of the best reasons for optimism comes from the Haitian people themselves. Back in 1991, novelist Herbert Gold published a book about Haiti with the apt title Best Nightmare on Earth. Yet while the people of this troubled country will readily acknowledge the nightmare, they also manage to find much joy in their lives, and visitors often comment on the preponderance of broad smiles that seem so contradictory to the local circumstances. Indeed, although poor, the nation has a beautiful landscape and long coastline, and is remarkably rich in traditions, culture, history and a mix of languages and connections to Africa, France, the United States and elsewhere.

History has shown repeatedly that people and nations can rise from disaster and experience unprecedented success. The Marshall Plan and the economic recovery of Europe after World War II come to mind, as does postwar Japan. More recently, there has been the dramatic physical recovery of so many of the areas pounded by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

So, how can we help the people of Haiti?

Of course, the support of the international community is essential, something that has been in evidence to an impressive degree in Haiti, even acknowledging that numerous commitments were not fulfilled. But as the Ebola crisis in Africa has shown, throwing resources into a hotspot is far from sufficient -- those wishing to help must consider the resources and capacities of the country in need to assist with the planning, execution and monitoring of help.