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'Haiti must be reassembled in a way that gives its people hope for the future'

A co-ordinated effort is needed to rebuild Haiti’s buildings and the optimism of its people, says John McAslan

My connection with Haiti goes back a number of years and I’ve grown to love this beautiful but ravaged country, whose dignified and resilient people have suffered so greatly over the years.

During a recent trip there, just prior to the earthquake, I felt a real sense of optimism for Haiti and its people. Despite the perilous state of the country, with its ruined economy, high unemployment, social unrest and political uncertainties, Haiti seemed to me a safer and more settled place. As I travelled through Port-au-Prince to the outlying areas, I felt safe and welcomed wherever I went.

The terrible earthquake of 12 January has destroyed much of the optimism Haitians might have felt for their future and has brought unimaginable grief to this already impoverished nation. However, amid the horror, Haitians have responded with huge dignity. When I was in Port-au-Prince last week, I witnessed none of the social unrest so widely reported. All I saw was extraordinary bravery and patience as people struggled to survive while waiting for the delayed aid effort to materialise.

Collapsed homes in Haiti

Collapsed: historic ‘gingerbread houses’ in Haiti

So what does the future hold for Haiti? Clearly, the absolute priority is to get effective emergency relief to the homeless of Port-au-Prince and those affected elsewhere. The hurricane season is fast closing in, so safe temporary accommodation is vital. Prior to the earthquake, the city’s utilities and physical infrastructure were fragile – they’re now broken and urgently need rebuilding so that basic services can be reconnected and roads reopened. Most of the schools and hospitals in Port-au-Prince were destroyed and must be rebuilt with temporary (for now) structures. Limited commercial activity has resumed, but the economy and political structure needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up.

The UN’s special envoy to Haiti, former US president Bill Clinton, calls this ‘building back better’, and it is exactly what is needed in Haiti. The country must be reassembled in a way that will give its people hope for the future. And, of course, in ‘building back better’ the construction of Haiti’s new buildings and infrastructure will need to be strictly controlled by a regulatory framework. The requirement for safe techniques, which were so absent in much of Haiti’s building fabric, must be recognised.

What is absolutely vital, though, is that rebuilding efforts are co-ordinated and that architects and others work through recognised NGOs so that help can be targeted where it is most needed. None of this can happen, however, without concentrated and sustained long-term support from the international community. The earthquake in Haiti might have begun to disappear from our daily media but we mustn’t allow it to disappear from our hearts and minds.

John McAslan is founder and director of John McAslan + Partners

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