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Haiti, One Year Later

On the anniversary of a massive earthquake, a Times columnist on how to really help Haiti recover—and move ahead

By Nicholas D. Kristof in Haiti

An emergency cholera hospital is the grimmest kind of medical center, and it's a symbol of the series of horrors that have battered Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, over the last year.

At the cholera treatment center I visited in central Haiti, nobody goes in or out without being thoroughly disinfected. To try to control the epidemic, bodies are buried rather than released to families.

Since the epidemic began in November, more than 2,000 people have died of cholera, a highly contagious but treatable disease if it's caught early. The Pan American Health Organization estimates that 400,000 Haitians may get cholera over the next year.

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake last January killed 250,000 people, devastated the country's capital, Port-au-Prince, and left more than 1 million people homeless out of a population of 9 million.

The death toll was a result not only of the quake, but also of poverty: Shoddy construction and slow rescue efforts resulted in many more deaths than if the same quake had occurred in, say, California. Then came cholera, which is a disease of poverty—poor sanitation and a lack of clean drinking water can themselves create an epidemic.

One cholera patient, 21-year-old Dieulimere Renatu, told me that she gets drinking water for her family from a river. If she tried to find water from a safer source, it would take her three or four hours a day—and she'd have less time to work and make money. Those are the trade-offs that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Haitians face.

When international donors pledged $5.9 billion in aid to rebuild Haiti, some relief groups saw an opportunity in the catastrophe to build a better infrastructure in a country that was in terrible shape before the earthquake.

Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly suggested that humanitarians were romanticizing aid as a solution: "One year from today, Haiti will be just as bad as it is right now," he said.

I criticized him at the time, but he wasn't far off. Haiti has certainly improved since right after the quake, and aid kept alive many who would otherwise have died. But reconstruction has barely started. Most of the rubble is still waiting to be cleared, and more than a million people are still living in tents.

Part of the problem is that the government, crippled by the quake, has done little. Another is that aid groups created a parallel state that further diminishes the government—and every country needs a central authority to make decisions.

Sweatshops vs. Jobs

Ultimately, what Haiti needs most isn't so much aid, but trade. Aid accounts for half of Haiti's economy, and remittances—the money sent home from Haitians living abroad, primarily the 500,000 in the U.S.—account for another quarter. That's a path to nowhere.

The U.S. has approved trade incentives that have already created 6,000 jobs in the garment industry in Haiti, and several South Korean companies are planning to open factories, creating perhaps another 130,000 jobs.

Americans may react by thinking "sweatshops," but Haitians are thinking "jobs." Nothing would be more transformative.

Let's send in doctors to save people from cholera. Let's send in aid workers to build sustainable sanitation and water systems to help people help themselves. Let's help educate Haitian children and improve the port to facilitate trade. But above all, let's send in business investors to create jobs.

Otherwise, there will always be more needs, more crises, more tragedies, more victims.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, January 10, 2011)