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A Haitian woman is covered in rubble in Port-au-Prince. (DANIEL MOREL)
A Haitian woman is covered in rubble in Port-au-Prince. (DANIEL MOREL)

Globe editorial

Today's rescue is just the beginning Add to ...

The earthquake that devastated Haiti is a horrifying disaster, made worse by the country's singular incapacity to cope with any additional strain. In fact, Haiti is in a perpetual state of emergency. Canada and Canadians must not only respond quickly and assist in the rescue and relief effort, but use the occasion created by the earthquake to mobilize a newer, larger international effort, and help lift this basket case of the Western Hemisphere out of poverty.

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The earthquake spared no one. The country's three major institutions were struck: the Presidential Palace is in ruins, the UN's mission was reduced to rubble and many of its staff are unaccounted for, and Port-au-Prince's Roman Catholic archbishop is dead. Ordinary residents were killed by the thousands, and no local institution has the capacity to properly help the wounded or missing. The hospitals the country does have are overwhelmed or destroyed. Whatever the final toll, in human and economic terms, it will be too high to bear.

But Tuesday's catastrophe is just an acute manifestation of Haitians' everyday predicament. The country ranks 149th on the UN's Human Development Index, between Papua New Guinea and Sudan. One child in eight dies before the age of five. Only 11 per cent of households have piped water. The environment is severely degraded, and vestigial forests now cover only 1 per cent of the country. Seventy-two per cent of its people live in extreme poverty, on less than $2 a day. Money, where it is available, comes from Haitian emigrants: remittances are one-fifth of GDP.

Such privation, so close to our shores and to massive wealth, is unacceptable.

Haiti fell from the headlines after the instability created by the ouster of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide concluded with a relatively peaceful election in 2006. But that was the only meaningful change. The country lacks any exportable economic resources, aside from its people, and the extreme poverty rate has increased from 60 per cent in 1987. Haiti is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and Transparency International ranks it the tenth most corrupt.

Every calamity of the last few years has dealt an especially cruel blow to the island nation. In 2008, food riots led to the prime minister's resignation, while four hurricanes cut the country's GDP by one-sixth.

Canada has invested considerably in Haiti, with Canadians working in peacekeeping and police training, and many non-government organizations delivering social services. The federal government is to be commended for its 2008 pledge of $555-million in aid over five years, making Canada the world's second largest donor nation to Haiti. If the raw death toll was not enough, our large Haitian expatriate community, and our proximity to the country, also make Haiti's tragedy Canada's.

But the international community must redouble and rethink its efforts in Haiti. If poverty is increasing, then existing attempts to alleviate poverty have failed. An international donors' conference in April, 2009, brought $428-million (U.S.) in new commitments, but the money is clearly not enough, and must be better spent. In particular, argues economist Paul Collier, a larger focus on building and keeping up infrastructure, and enabling access to markets, especially focused on garment manufacturers and on improving the nation's ports, could help the economy grow.

There are some reasons to be hopeful. In a recent report to the UN's secretary-general, Mr. Collier points out Haiti has strengths other poor nations lack - little ethnic conflict, proximity to markets and a strong diaspora. The U.S. now provides several tariff exemptions to Haitian businesses; Canada could follow the American lead by accelerating free trade talks with the Caribbean Community (which includes Haiti) that were launched over two years ago, and consider special preferences for Haiti. Canada imported less than $20-million (Canadian) from Haiti in 2008, mostly textile products: a pittance.

If it was not apparent before, it is clear now: hemispheric allies and emerging powers like Brazil need to take an even greater role in ensuring the ultimate success of Haiti, mobilizing their dollars and strategies in concert. Wealthy neighbours like the U.S. and Canada have a special responsibility. Haitians need not only an immediate rescue, but a permanent solution to their troubles.

One change could help better rally international support to Haiti. Bill Clinton, the globetrotting, distracted former U.S. president, is the UN's special envoy to the country. With Michaëlle Jean's tenure as governor-general slated to expire this summer, the federal government should use its influence at the UN now to secure a leadership role for her; Ms. Jean has the charisma, compassion and personal commitment necessary to make the world stay focused on the country's plight.

In the days and weeks ahead, the world will rightly pour tens of millions of dollars into Haiti. Canada will need to dramatically supplement the $5-million in emergency aid it has currently pledged. Disaster in Haiti is a seemingly intractable fact, but there can be movement, if the international community pursues it. The immediate life-saving measures must be followed by a concerted, wide-ranging commitment to the country. In that task, Canada can play a leading role.

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