Jean Lowrie-Chin | Jamaica Observer | 12 July 2010
EVEN as our Caricom heads are projecting sweetness and light, their largest member state, Haiti, remains doubled over in pain from the January 12 earthquake.
For us UWI alumni, there was indeed a Caribbean oneness on campus that persists today in close friendships and marriages. Yet we have made little effort to promote this feeling of kinship among the general populace.
What a fantastic signal we would send to the world – “to the world!” – if we could make Haiti the focus of a Caricom-UWI restoration project. In last Thursday's New York Times three professors of engineering from the respected Georgia Tech wrote about the staggering volume of earthquake debris literally standing in the way of the country's recovery.
Reginald DesRoches, professor of civil and environmental engineering, Ozlem Ergun and Julie Swann, associate professors of industrial and systems engineering and codirectors of the Centre for Health and Humanitarian Logistics, described the monumental challenge left by an earthquake that took 300,000 lives and destroyed 280,000 homes and businesses.
“The quake left an astonishing amount of debris, including concrete and rebar from collapsed buildings, destroyed belongings and human remains,” they wrote. “Twenty million to 25 million cubic yards of debris fill the streets, yards, sidewalks and canals of Port-au-Prince.”
They said initial efforts were promising, but now there is little coordination of the clearing, funded by the European Union and USAID. “Haitians, at best, breaking concrete and loading trucks by hand and, at worst, just moving bricks from one side of a road to the other,” they commented. “Many workers lack masks or gloves. While this inefficient process may put money into the hands of Haitians, it only further slows rebuilding.”
They are calling for the United Nations, the World Bank and agencies like USAID, in conjunction with the Haitian government, to “create a task force focused on debris removal to coordinate the clean-up efforts of the hodgepodge of aid groups in the country.”
Caricom should blush that they are not even mentioned in this suggestion. Yet Haiti accounts for more than half of the population of Caricom – nine of 16 million, the total population of the 15-member states. Where could our region go if nine million of our poorest were finally put on a path to prosperity? Haitians are among the region's most talented artists and artisans. If you have ever seen the beautiful gates and rails in Haiti, you would realise how gauche most of our welders are here in Jamaica. The benefits would be mutual.
It is true that the University of the West Indies has turned out some of the finest engineers, many of whom are now senior executives in powerful international companies. It is true that UWI's graduates have written about the history of such heroes as Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian general who defeated Napoleon's army. It is very true that our campus has yielded the majority of heads of state in the English-speaking Caribbean – this same Caricom of which Haiti is a member state.
We have the resources and should most certainly have the heart to be the turning point for our neighbour. What a sea change it would be for our region, if all our heads of state galvanised their finest engineers and planners to make Haiti's recovery a speedy reality.
It can happen! Does the leadership of Caricom believe that it was a coincidence that for the first time, a UN Secretary General was in attendance at a Caricom Summit? Ban Ki Moon must have left Jamaica for Haiti with a heavy heart. I am sure he was hoping he would have had a more positive and dynamic plan from these distinguished leaders to take to the battered Haitians.
Involve our students
What is more, the restoration of Haiti could address the huge problem of joblessness in the region. Our school leavers could learn valuable lessons from an energetic stint in Haiti, working as part of a professionally planned mission to rebuild the country.
The Georgia Tech professors believe it can be done. “The task force should identify critical facilities, like hospitals and schools, and the roads that approach them, to clear first,” they suggest. “It should lay down environmental regulations for debris disposal and landfill management, and regulate the use of cash-forwork programmes. There's no reason these can't continue, but more of the money should be allocated to bringing in heavy equipment and expertise. This kind of task force would serve as a model for future disasters.”
End this 'persistent poverty'
How can it be that 27 states of Europe with a population of over 500 million could arrive at a legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights in 2009, while our 15 small states of Caricom still cannot come to such an agreement? Why are we still acting like crabs in a barrel, even as we stand close and smiling for the photo-op? It is the EU that is helping Haiti while we preside over our persistent poverty. The UWI that I attended certainly did not subscribe to such values. Let us do what we promised ourselves we would, as brave young graduates. By challenging ourselves to create a new Caribbean, we can indeed change the world.