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Quake-Hit Haiti Slowly Rises from the Rubble

By Nigel Fisher

July 11, 2010

(Click here to view the original article)

It is sometimes difficult to remember that it has been six months since 12 January.

Many Haitians, when they speak of the earthquake, refer only to "before". Before they lost, in 35 seconds, so much - friends, family, homes, schools, churches and their visions of the future.

What happened here on 12 January was a disaster of a magnitude that would have set any country reeling.

More than 222,570 people have died, 300,572 were injured and at one point a staggering 2.3 million - nearly one quarter of the population - were displaced.

The government lost thousands of civil servants and most of its key infrastructure was destroyed.

In all, 101 United Nations colleagues perished and many more suffered terrible personal losses, as did many of our colleagues in other humanitarian organisations.

Nevertheless, in desperately difficult circumstances, one of the largest humanitarian operations of its kind was mounted.

That response delivered basic shelter to survivors, fed 4.3 million people, installed latrines and vaccinated more than 900,000 people against communicable disease.

Today, humanitarian needs are still acute.

More than 1,300 camps remain, housing 1.5 million people. The response here delivers water to 1.2 million people daily, maintains 11,000 latrines and ensures that basic medical healthcare is free for all survivors.

Mass starvation was averted and perhaps most significantly there has been no outbreak of disease in the camps.

The operation just to take care of humanitarian needs on a daily basis is enormous. But while we do this, there are other challenges too.

The hurricane season is beginning and we must move quickly to protect people as best we can. This work is under way, but time is short. And we must, of course, work to ensure a better long-term future, not just for survivors in the most affected areas but throughout the country.

Real progress

The tragedy of Haiti is that poverty levels here were so deep before the January 2010 quake that even the basic support offered to those living in camps is more than many had before.

But we must also not forget that before this tragedy Haiti was making real progress with a stable, democratically elected government, falling crime levels, and upward trends in nutrition levels.

The real disaster for Haiti would be to allow this natural disaster to undo the progress of past years.

Ordinary Haitians have been clear about their priorities - an income to get their lives back together, education for their children so they have a stake in their country's future, and housing where their families are safe.

We as a humanitarian community must help all 1.5 million survivors in the camps find ways to leave, while making sure that those who have no choice but to stay for some time also receive assistance.

We must get people working as fast as possible. Again and again people in the camps tell us that if they can work they can take charge of their own recovery. Haitians must see tangible evidence of progress.

We must keep putting up transitional shelter as fast as we can and scale up rubble removal from the streets. The rubble was put in the streets by Haitians clearing their destroyed homes and businesses, but it now blocks access and rebuilding efforts.

We must continue to prevent disease.

Strong leadership

We must help the government become better able to lead the extremely complex task of reconstruction and ensure all Haitians have a chance to shape their future. Continued weak governance is not an option.

If Haiti is to experience this national transformation, it will require strong political leadership and an international community aligned with national priorities. It also needs sustained funding from donors backed up by measurable progress and regular information outreach - Haitians need to know what is happening and what to expect.

Many people around the world gave generously to Haiti and we thank them profusely - none of what we do would be possible without their support, and we take the custodianship of that funding and the responsibility that it brings extremely seriously.

We must lay the foundations now for transformation of Haiti on a huge scale - of the rural economy, of more equitable country-wide development and social service delivery, of government capacity at national and local levels.

This work has already begun but will be extremely complex and will take a long time - we are talking of at least a generation.

We have seen extraordinary strength as ordinary Haitians cope with appalling suffering - with dignity, calm and a truly humbling willingness to help each other regardless of how little they have.

We must recommit ourselves now to our role in supporting them as they and their government struggle to build a brighter future together.

We have to stay the course with Haiti.

Nigel Fisher is the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General, Ad Interim, for the UN mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.