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'Not much has been done' in Haiti, Michaëlle Jean laments

Then-governor-general Michaëlle Jean and her husband Jean-Daniel Lafond chat with a displaced family in Haiti last March.

Paul Chiasson/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Don't think of them as resilient.

This is the first piece of advice Michaëlle Jean, the newly minted United Nations special envoy for Haiti, has for those struggling to forge progress in this troubled island nation.

"I cannot stand hearing … when people talk about Haitians' resilience," Ms. Jean said in a recent wide-ranging interview to mark the anniversary of Haiti's earthquake. "I think that's the worst that you can say about people, because there's a sense of fatalism with it, as if we were born for one catastrophe after the other," she said.

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"It's as if we were born for misery."

Canada's former governor-general has launched deeply into her new mission, which is to promote Haiti's culture and advancements in the dilapidated education system. More immediately though, she is determined to ensure the world does not give up on her birth country, which is suffering a series of effects from the catastrophe last year. Haiti is also facing continuing political uncertainty and battling a cholera outbreak.

"There are still over a million people living in camps. There's no security. A lot of girls and women are at risk. We cannot underplay these realities," said Ms. Jean, who plans to be in Haiti on Wednesday. "Pretty soon, what is considered temporary will become permanent, because it's a way of survival."

In her view, the international community's year-long effort here has largely failed.

"We're going to be commemorating a year … not much has been done," she said. "The system is not delivering anything. If it worked, we would see a different Haiti today," she said, adding: "If we want to see a change … we need to start working differently now."

The first step for foreigners working here is to overlook the nation's chaos and move "from the logic of assistance to the logic of investment."

"What Haiti needs is investment in people's capacities, in governance, investing in education. What Haiti is about, really, is supporting a population," she said. "Otherwise, we'll continue with the same system that is not productive, not constructive, that same cycle of dependency that is very detrimental."

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At stake, she said, is the country's future, which she estimates will take at least two decades to change. But that will only happen, she said, if government and non-government organizations improve their cohesion.

"Haiti has become in the last decades some kind of huge laboratory for all kinds of projects. There are tens and thousands of NGOs who are trying their best. I'm not saying they're doing bad work," she said. "What is needed is invest in sustainable actions. Everybody needs to rethink their way of doing things in Haiti."

That includes the Haitian government, to which Ms. Jean says she has a special licence to deliver some tough love because she grew up in Haiti.

"There are things that I can say … that some people would not. They would use more diplomatic manners to address. But I know where the weaknesses are. I know where the risks of failure are," she said. "I know where we need to work towards a mind shift."

At the top of her list is the country's approach to education. There is no national curriculum, no good public-school system and no way to distinguish between the litany of expensive private schools with good intentions and those set up purely for profit.

The movement of economies, services and resources away from the capital is also critical to the country's evolution. For years the central government in Port-au-Prince has starved outlying communities and smaller cities. Because of that, Haitians living outside the capital often refer to their country as the "Republic of Port-au-Prince." When the earthquake struck, displaced people resisted moving out into those regions because they have so little.

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"Haiti cannot continue being the Republic of Port-au-Prince," Ms. Jean said. "It has to be about the Republic of Haiti."

Ms. Jean said she worries that the election debacle has put the country "through an incredible strain. It's like you have a patient that is undergoing surgery with a body that is suffering, that needs recovery, and you're asking that person to run for a marathon."

Because of the circumstances, the chaos that ensued should not "colour overall impressions for the future of Haiti," she said. "Haiti is not a country at war. We need to not dwell on the troubling scenes. It's the bigger picture that we need to consider," she said. "It's about a population that deserves our trust."

Most of all, Ms. Jean said, she'd like to see real action soon.

"I think enough reports have been written. Enough inquiries have been done. Now it's time to act. By starting now, we'll see an amazing change in 20 years," she said, adding: "Haiti cannot make it alone."

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About the Author
Global food reporter

Jessica Leeder is the Globe’s Atlantic Reporter, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In previous roles, Jessica has reported for the Globe from Afghanistan and post-quake Haiti, assignments for which she won an Emmy and a National Newspaper Award, respectively. She has also written about the politics of global food, entrepreneurialism and small business, and automotive news. More

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