Did Michelle Obama's Visit Signal a Lasting White House Commitment to Haiti?

Official visits are important to Haitians but the question remains: what does a serious recovery plan for Haiti really look like, and how can the Haitian Diaspora play a role?

When First Lady Michelle Obama paid an unannounced visit to earthquake ravaged Port-au-Prince recently, responses were mixed. The First Lady visited the collapsed presidential palace and caught glimpses of one of Port-au-Prince's most sprawling refugee camps; as word or her visit spread throughout the camp, residents cheered. For some Haitians in the Diaspora, however, Mrs. Obama's visit was a bit of an enigma. Some wonder whether the visit was a substantial gesture of commitment to Haiti's long-term growth and recovery. While these kinds of official visits are important to every day Haitians -- they reaffirm the message that the Obama administration remains committed to Haiti's reconstruction -- the question remains: what does a serious recovery plan for Haiti really look like , and how can the Haitian Diaspora play a defining role?

In the aftermath of the earthquake which struck Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, the Haitian American Diaspora emerged deeply affected by the catastrophe, but steeled in its resolve to play a significant role in Haiti's reconstruction. Moreover, in a national survey sponsored by New American Media and conducted by Bendixen & Amandi, Haitian Americans expressed concern that once immediate relief efforts were phased out ensuing activities would fail to meet the needs of the Haitian people. Reconstruction funds they feared, would evaporate in a maze of graft and corruption. The Diaspora's "invests" in Haiti through remittances to the tune of $1.6 billion a year, which represents about 30% of Haiti national budget. The magnitude of the catastrophe and the suffering of the Haitian people have emboldened the Diaspora to demand a greater role and a greater voice in ensuring that reconstruction efforts be conducted in a context of transparency and accountability.

The Haitian Diaspora has laid that its own vision for a reconstruction effort which would "build back better", more transparently and sustainably. In the post-earthquake flurry of activities, Haitian Americans organized meetings in New York, Boston, Miami, DC, and Atlanta to coordinate relief efforts and to discuss their involvement in Haiti's reconstruction. On March 21-23 2010, the Haitian Diaspora from France, Canada, Latin America and the US gathered in Washington DC, under the auspices of the Organization of American States ( OAS) to present a set of recommendations to the Haitian government reflecting their commitment to and concerns about Haiti's reconstruction. The document was presented to the Haitian government at a Donor's Forum held at the United Nations on March 31, 2010.

The Diaspora's plan reflects its concerns and articulates its visions for a new Haiti. The recommendations address issues of governance, accountability, decentralization, economic growth and sustainability, access to basic services (education, clean water, food security, health, employment) and gender equity. The plan speaks directly to the need to include greater opportunities for Diaspora businesses to compete for contracts historically secured by entities lacking the cultural competency needed to tackle some of Haiti's most vexing problems. Young Haitian American professionals eager to be of help have also advocated for a program modeled after the Peace Corp which would embed Haitian American professionals in critically needed positions.

The Obama administration has responded to the Diaspora's concerns by vowing to stay the course. Vice President Biden has twice visited Miami's Haitian American community since the earthquake to convey the Obama administration's commitment to long term rebuilding strategies which would include significant Diaspora input and engagement.

During his first visit, Mr. Biden expressed his condolences to Miami's Haitian American community which had been impacted by the earthquake and laid out the administration's plans for medical and humanitarian relief efforts. In his most recent trip Mr. Biden, provided an updated report on the multiple phases of the Administration's long term commitment to Haiti's rebuilding effort emphasizing, provisions made to ensure transparency, accountability and sustainability. Mr. Biden points to the White House's supplemental request for funding as the blue print for the US rebuilding efforts in Haiti.

The Haitian Diaspora has expressed its satisfaction with the Obama Administration's response to the earthquake (96% surveyed gave high approval ratings), but understands that while the support of the international community is critical, it is up to Haiti's children to ensure that Haiti does not miss once again this historic opportunity to meet the most basic needs of its people and to shine once again as the beacon of freedom and social justice which inspired freedom lovers for the past 200 years.

Leonie Hermantin is the Deputy Director of the Lambi Fund of Haiti.
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