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A woman constructs a shelter in a makeshift camp in Port-au-Prince on January 25, 2010. Top world officials gathered in Montreal today for emergency talks to hash out plans to rebuild Haiti, nearly two weeks after a killer earthquake devastated the impoverished nation. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman constructs a shelter in a makeshift camp in Port-au-Prince on January 25, 2010. Top world officials gathered in Montreal today for emergency talks to hash out plans to rebuild Haiti, nearly two weeks after a killer earthquake devastated the impoverished nation. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

World leaders commit to 10 years of hard work for Haiti Add to ...

Nations calling themselves the Friends of Haiti have made a 10-year commitment to help the devastated island country recover from the earthquake and pull itself out of the depths of poverty.

Participants at a Montreal conference on Monday agreed in a joint statement that "an initial 10-year commitment is essential." They also said that reconstruction must be directed by Haitians and that it must be co-ordinated, effective and transparent.

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"It is not an exaggeration to say that 10 years of hard work awaits the world in Haiti," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told members of the loosely organized group of nations that calls itself the Friends of Haiti.

The declarations were made as the International Monetary Fund indicated it would announce a $100-million, interest-free loan for Haiti. However, the bank has no plans to meet demands from aid agencies to forgive Haiti's nearly $900-million debt.

Mr. Harper said that when the immediate needs of Haiti's wounded, hungry and homeless have been met, the long restoration process will begin and aid nations must be prepared to go the distance.

"The international community must be prepared for a sustained, significant effort in Haiti, relying on the leadership of the government of Haiti and in line with its priorities."

Aid has flooded into the island nation since the earthquake shook the ground two weeks ago, levelling much of the capital and killing more than 100,000 people.

Medicine, water, food and shelter are starting to reach victims in urban areas such as Port-au-Prince. Soldiers, including 2,000 Canadian military personnel, have been deployed to distribute aid and help keep the peace in what threatens to become a volatile mix of disease and desperation.

Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere even before the most recent disaster. Years of assistance from partner nations, including Canada, failed to significantly ameliorate the situation or raise the people from their despair.

Still, the foreign dignitaries who participated in Monday's meeting, including Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, said they hoped the conference would lay the groundwork for sustained international help.

It's a commitment that would come with a hefty price. Observers say putting Haiti back on its feet will take $10-billion.

Mr. Bellerive said he anticipates his country will need foreign aid for at least five to 10 years. He did not ask the Friends of Haiti for a specific amount of money because, he said, the assessment of what will be needed has not been completed.

It is unclear how countries such as Canada that are expecting a painful period of post-recession belt-tightening will pay for extended reconstruction.

But Mr. Harper pledged that Haiti's needs would remain on the Canadian agenda.

Sustainability is key, he said. "We need to commit to Haiti for the long term … [and]we must hold each other accountable for the commitments we make." That point was echoed by Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, who told reporters that operations in Haiti must continue long after the TV crews have gone home and the troops have returned to their regular duties.

"We are now planning on at least 12 months," Mr. Holmes said. "But the reality is we may be engaged on a very large scale for much longer than that, in parallel with the enormous reconstruction and redevelopment effort."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited the group to a follow-up conference in New York in March. She said that event will be preceded by technical meetings that will look at what the Haitians need and how assistance can be co-ordinated.

"There is a lot of work to be done," Ms. Clinton said. "We are still in emergency. There is a terrible humanitarian crisis that we are dealing with."

Mr. Bellerive told conference participants that his country has an urgent need for 200,000 tents to shelter people who have lost their homes.

"We must have that ability to meet the basic requirements of people who are out on the streets," he said.

The Haitian Prime Minister said questions should be asked about why Haiti remains so poor after 30 to 40 years of international aid.

But he also repeatedly asserted that Haiti should be the master of its own destiny and that any development and reconstruction must be done because the people of Haiti say so.

Donor countries such as Canada and the United States have been accused of responding to other disasters by directing money without consulting the affected countries. In many cases, they have not employed indigenous people to do the rebuilding, missing the chance to invest in the local economy.

But that seems to be changing.

All of the participants at Monday's meeting stressed that Haiti must script its own reconstruction.

"We intend to support the [Haitian]government so that this is truly a Haitian-led effort, one that responds to the aspirations and the needs of the Haitian people," Ms. Clinton said. "It is important that we see ourselves as partners with Haiti, not patrons."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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