EDITORIAL: Beware the Haiti experience

It’s been a week since Hurricane Irma unleashed her fury on Barbuda, and we are happy to report that so far, the recovery and relief effort has been moving along rather smoothly. The authorities had to act with some dispatch to get the folks out of the stricken island, what with Hurricane Jose threatening to hit Codrington with a double-whammy. Again, this was a successful operation, given the many challenges. For the most part, our Barbudan brothers and sisters have been patient, and they have conducted themselves in a most dignified and becoming manner. So too have we here on the mainland. Antiguans have risen to the occasion in an admirable way and opened hearts, hands and homes to our kin from Barbuda. This is clearly our finest hour!  And kudos all around are well deserved!

But this is hardly the time for resting on our laurels or taking a bow. After all, there is much work to be done yet. Firstly, there is the urgent task of ensuring that the Barbudans are comfortable at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium and the National Technical Training Centre, and that efforts are ongoing to ensure that they are placed in homes while the rebuilding work takes place. The shelters are not long-term solutions. It will only be a matter of time before nerves fray and tempers flare. Not to mention the potential for an outbreak of conjunctivitis and other contagious diseases that seem to show up when there are too many people living in close quarters under less than optimal conditions. Of course, we do not want the Barbudans to rush back to Codrington to exist in tent cities amidst squalor and blight while their homes are being rebuilt. But neither should Barbudans be led around like sheep by the central government without a voice in the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘when,’ ‘where,’ and ‘whys.’  

The Haiti experience

on such matters is instructive.

And what, pray tell, was the Haiti experience? Well, after the unfortunate twin disasters of the massive 7.0 earthquake in early 2010 that killed upwards of 300,000 souls, followed closely by Hurricane Tomas later that same year, Port Au Prince and much of the country was reduced to rubble. Enter the incompetent Haitian government, and insult was quickly added to injury. Enter the United Nations’ bureaucrats and technocrats, in three-piece suits and limousines, and everything got tied up in red tape. There was much rhetoric, but precious little else in real terms for the Haitian people. Not to mention the many foundations and charities that made a mockery of the noble concepts of altruism and philanthropy. Seemed they raised millions of dollars from charitable donations, but less than ten cents of every dollar raised actually trickled down to the impoverished people of Haiti! Indeed, the greater part of every dollar raised went to paying the exorbitant salaries of those running the foundations and subsidizing their private jets, five-star suites, haute couture and the other trappings of a

life high on the hog. For shame!

Meanwhile, the people of Haiti languished in disease, decay and death. Diseases heretofore thought eradicated in this hemisphere suddenly made a reappearance in Haiti, and even the United Nations Secretary General at the time, Ban Ki Moon, was forced to apologise to the Haitian people for some culpability in the outbreak of cholera in 2010 that resulted in some 3,000 deaths.  Of course, others ought to have apologized for mishandling the Haitian crisis. After all, how could so much international goodwill result in so little that was positive? Answer? Much of the donations were, how can we put this delicately, converted into loot. A goodly portion of the rebuilding funds and rebuilding contracts were awarded to the friends and family members of the ruling elite, and local contractors were left in the cold. Think patronage, kickbacks, self-dealing, double-dipping, nepotism, cronyism and greed. They all apply! Even as thousands of Haitians continue to languish in tent communities under sub-human conditions!

Clearly, the Haiti experience is a template for what not to do in a national disaster. For one thing, self-dealing and profiteering should not be tolerated as it was in Haiti. The bidding process for the awarding of rebuilding contracts should be free and fair, and conducted in as transparent a manner as possible without favour to party supporters and family members. In other words, contracts should be awarded on the merits. There should be a careful and meticulous stewardship of the funds received from the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and the many local, regional and international charitable organizations that have stepped up to help Barbuda. Most importantly, the simmering question of who really owns the land in Barbuda ought to be finally resolved, as should the question of the impact of the rising sea levels on Barbuda. As most of us are aware, environmentalists predict that Barbuda will be under water by 2060. Not good!  Again, all the decisions regarding the rebuilding and future of Barbuda ought to be made in close consultation and with the approval of the Barbudans themselves. One of the criticisms of the Haiti debacle was that so-called ‘experts’ in far-flung capitals made all the decisions about Haiti without regard for the senses and sensibilities of the Haitian people. The disrespect was galling! 

We certainly wish the authorities an abundance of wisdom, Godspeed and every continued success. The Prime Minister, Honourable Gaston Browne, seemed to touch all the right notes on Monday at a special session of parliament, and later that day at a special meeting of all Barbudans, and so far, his commitment to rebuilding a better and sustainable Barbuda appears genuine. To our Barbudan brothers and sisters, we will certainly continue extending our right hand of kinship, and we will continue standing with you in this most difficult and trying time. We cannot do otherwise!

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