News & Events

For Haiti, new possibilities lie in reconstruction effort

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post / March 7, 2010
PETIONVILLE, Haiti – Here on the hills above Port-au-Prince, a vision for a very different capital is taking shape.

In a loft of architectural offices, a map of greater Port-au-Prince promises a reordering of the country’s historic capital, overtaken long ago by sprawl and slums and struck in January by a cataclysmic earthquake.

“Expressway’’ is etched along the city’s winding seaboard. “New Housing Area’’ is written over a swath of undeveloped land far from the detritus of downtown. And “Debris’’ is written in several spots where it is to be put to constructive use.

Presiding over the map, and over the massive reconstruction effort that will define the country for generations, is a Haitian-born Howard University graduate who serves as Haiti’s tourism minister.

Working out of spare space far from his destroyed downtown offices, Patrick Delatour must sell a future for Haiti to his people and an audience of international donors, who will help fund an urban rebirth starting from virtually zero.
“This,’’ he said, looking out the window as his police driver navigated the swells of a ramshackle back alley, “is urban development without urbanism, architecture without architects, engineering without engineers.’’

While the international response to the Jan. 12 earthquake was swift, the international role in reconstruction is still taking shape, slowed by the scale of the humanitarian crisis and freighted by the often prickly relationship between the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country and the foreign actors who have loomed so large in its history.

The earthquake has spurred talk of remaking not only the capital and the country, but also those complicated ties between Haiti and the rest of the world. Foreign governments, concerned about corruption, have long channeled much of their aid through nongovernmental organizations. That arrangement, some Haitians say, has stunted the Haitian government’s own development and given the nongovernmental organizations an outsize role that comes with little accountability for the country’s persistent poverty.

Since the earthquake, foreign government and international organizations have been trying to send a different message, noting, at almost every opportunity, the role that the Haitian government has played in the rescue and relief operations and the leading role that it will play in the reconstruction of the country.

Soon in New York, the international community’s commitment to Haiti’s reconstruction will face its first big test. At a meeting of donor nations and international organizations, the Haitian government is to present its preliminary reconstruction plan, which it hopes will set the stage for a large and lasting commitment by the rest of the world.
Even before he knows precisely what sort of help his country will receive, Delatour has been talking to, among others, the French government and a number of American universities about providing technical assistance in planning and other disciplines critical to this early phase of the reconstruction effort.

Still, he said, Haiti’s reconstruction must be shaped by the Haitian government and the Haitian people. “I’m confident in Haiti’s ability to offer the leadership that is necessary.’’

Before the earthquake, about a quarter of Haiti’s nearly 10 million people lived in and around Port-au-Prince, many of them in dozens of slums that dot the capital region. But the problems that imperiled Port-au-Prince have some of their roots in distant, desperate corners of Haiti that for years have sent so many of their young people to the big city in search of work.

As the country’s leaders cast the earthquake as an opportunity to remake the capital, the outcome of their efforts could turn as much on creating jobs in agriculture and tourism as drawing up a charming esplanade and a bigger airport for Port-au-Prince.

To talk to Delatour as well as economists, historians, and other intellectuals, a vision is emerging of a city that while perhaps still the capital, would no longer play the central role that led one Haitian historian to call it the Republic of Port-au-Prince.

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.