High Holidays | Opinion | Opinion

Op-Ed: Holidays remind us of what we still need to do in Haiti

American Jewish World Servce President Ruth Messinger, shown here on a visit to Chad, says it's time to step up what we're doing in Haiti (Mia Farrow)

NEW YORK (JTA) — On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many of us are haunted by the ubiquitous liturgical refrain asking “Who shall live and who shall die?”

As I sit in synagogue and hear these words chanted over and over again, I can’t help but question whether the righteous are really being rewarded in a world where brutal leaders enjoy great material wealth while more than 1 billion people worldwide are hungry and too many cope with extreme poverty and overwhelming disasters.

On these Days of Awe, I am comforted by the empowering emphasis on repentance as a means to alter reality, to change ostensible fate. The centrality of repentance in our High Holiday liturgy and tradition affirms that our actions and choices can impact our personal fate and the fate of the world.

Our active role in pursuing justice is more important than ever today. Since January, when the worst natural disaster in the Western hemisphere in centuries hit Haiti, we have all seen images of mass destruction close to our shores that are unlike anything we could ever have fathomed. Eight months after the earthquake, the circumstances faced by Haitians on the ground are still appalling. More than 1 million people are living in Internally Displaced Persons camps, where rain floods their streets, rape is on the rise, and too many basic services are not provided.

The Jewish community has been generous in the aftermath of this disaster, doing our best to help in the emergency phase. But now we must hold our leaders accountable to addressing the long-term needs of the Haitian people.

In a recent report, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee identified 10 key elements for a successful, long-term rebuilding effort. These include creating a plan of action, building Haitian government leadership, coordinating international aid, and integrating the voices and interests of Haitian people into the rebuilding process.

It is this final recommendation that has not received nearly enough attention from the global community. The involvement of local civil society — people and organizations who know the needs, understand the culture, and can mobilize their nation — ultimately will determine whether Haiti can become a viable state.

American Jewish World Service recognizes this. Recently, AJWS funded the distribution of thousands of hand-held solar flashlights to a camp where lack of electricity and streetlights rendered nighttime acutely dangerous, especially for women. Women were afraid to walk to bathing areas and latrines at night because rape and other forms of violence had reached epidemic proportions. Yet once the lamps were distributed, the women in the camp felt emboldened to organize safety patrols, acting as escorts for other women and creating lit pathways.

These efforts, in turn, have spawned further community organizing, helping residents of the camp build self-esteem and begin income-generating activities, and helping empower the people to change their circumstances.

This story illustrates that when we invest in building a future for Haiti, we must think not only about supplies and money, but also about how to harness the power and creative energy of the Haitian people.

Now we must insist that the U.S. government follow five key strategies for aid in the months and years ahead:

•        Consult with Haitians from affected populations and sectors. To date, leaders of Haitian civil society have not had sufficient opportunity to participate in setting priorities. An example of the disconnect this vacuum has created was the recent fiasco in which the Agriculture Ministry accepted a multimillion dollar donation of seeds from a large multinational corporation. The government did not solicit input from rural development groups that were concerned that this could foster costly, long-term dependence on imported seeds. Thousands of farmers marched in protest and pledged to burn the seeds, embarrassing the government and international donors who should have asked before assuming that this solution met local needs.

•        Decentralize resources from Port-au-Prince to help build rural capacity. Both donors and the Haitian government must make more of an effort to understand the needs of the communities outside Port-au-Prince that are doing a great deal of the heavy lifting. AJWS’s grantees report that while almost all aid and rebuilding work is concentrated in the city, hundreds of thousands of displaced people are moving into small villages that are hard-pressed to feed them, provide meaningful work, offer psychosocial support and integrate children into their schools. These rural grassroots groups want desperately to absorb these refugees, and it is vital that they do so. If they fail, and a reverse migration ensues, it will only exacerbate the problems with sanitation, shelter, water and personal security that are crippling the capital.

•        Put Haitians back to work. Ultimately, the goal of reconstruction efforts must be to improve the Haitian standard of living by creating meaningful work opportunities. A study by Oxfam recently found that the biggest priority for Haitians is not food, water or shelter, but employment. Let’s use our aid dollars to create jobs and enable Haitians themselves to restart their economy.

•        Procure goods locally. An import-dependent economy worsened by the disaster has stifled the development of a domestic system that could generate jobs and revenue for the Haitian people — 80 percent of whom lived on less than $2 per day even before the earthquake. The best way to break this cycle of poverty and dependency is by procuring materials, food and labor from Haitian businesses. Funding local procurement also benefits American taxpayers, sparing us the costs of shipping and eventually reducing the need for American aid altogether.

•        Ensure effective, accountable aid policies. Congress is currently considering the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act — a piece of proposed legislation that clearly articulates U.S. aid priorities for the $2 billion committed to Haiti. It sets up benchmarks for success and requires local procurement of goods and services, and also includes a transparent reporting and accountability system, so that both U.S. taxpayers and Haitians can see where the money is going and whether or not it is achieving the desired impact. You can lend your voice by sending a letter to your senator urging support for this bill, which we’ve posted on our website ajws.org/takeaction.

Each year, we work to improve and refine ourselves, generating the inspiration and motivation to build a better world. In the days that follow, let us begin to put this aspiration into action, and let us do so humbly, side by side with those in need.

Despite a history of slavery, debt and subjugation, the Haitian people have a strong and resilient spirit. Even after this catastrophe, Haitians are not waiting for the international community to rebuild for them. Our vocal support for their efforts to organize at the grassroots level and to shape their own future represents the essence of the High Holiday season. It is the most important act of friendship we can offer them.

Ruth W.  Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service, an international development and human rights organization based in New York City.