Earthquake pushes back progress in Haiti

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By Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Haiti's devastating earthquake has reversed modest signs of progress in developing the impoverished Caribbean island to the point it will take a massive, sustained global effort to rebuild the country.

Haitians have learned to be resilient in the face of a series of devastating hurricanes and a long history of violence and instability, but the latest disaster is a setback on a scale that few countries, rich or poor, would be able to deal with.

Once cast aside as a failed state, Haiti's government has slowly won the confidence of donors and investors through economic reforms, efforts to stamp out corruption and improve conditions for the 80 percent of Haitians who live in poverty.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton personally took up Haiti's cause, becoming a U.N. special envoy and visiting the country several times to showcase its potential to donors and investors.

Later, the IMF and World Bank canceled $1.2 billion in Haiti's debt, freeing up funds for the government to pour more cash into building roads, bridges and social programs.

But donors have not always reliably delivered on their aid promises, and Clinton appealed on Wednesday for them to make good on their pledges in the country's time of need.

While relief teams rescue people from wrecked buildings and provide food, water and medicine to survivors of the 7.0 earthquake, development experts can't help but look ahead and see opportunities for rebuilding Haiti in meaningful ways.

Helene Gayle, chief executive officer for U.S.-based development group CARE, said Haiti could no longer survive from crisis to crisis. Donors need to think harder about how to put the country on a path of long-lasting, sustained change, she added.

Gayle likened Haiti's tragedy to the Asian tsunami, and said it was a chance for the world to be generous and commit to helping Haiti beyond the current disaster.

"These short-term crises and disasters can't have just short-term responses, they have to have long-term responses so that we're not continuing to put Band-Aids on societies," she told Reuters.

"We need to make sure that we're building back in a way that does not only return them to where they were but gives them an opportunity to really get a leg up after this is all over," she added.

"You can't do this on the cheap. This is a situation that demands we do what is necessary now to be able to get communities to a point where they can stand on their own feet," she said.

Yvonne Tsikata, World Bank country director for the Caribbean, said that before the earthquake foreign investors were increasingly seeing opportunities in Haiti thanks to the U.S. HOPE 11 Act, which allows textiles made in Haiti into the United States duty free.

"The earthquake really is a tragedy because there was an energy and a fantastic feeling about prospects in Haiti," she added.

The World Bank has pledged an extra $100 million in aid to Haiti and urged an urgent response to helping Haiti rebuild.

Rebuilding Haiti, however, not only means repairing physical structures but also investing in health and education, she said. This was a long-term effort that could take between two to five years, she said.

(Editing by Philip Barbara)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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