The most compelling subject of the current moment is the tragic earthquake in Haiti and its sorrowful aftermath. As I search for the right words full disclosure is in order. Through my management consulting practice I have been active in Haiti for the past decade. I have been on the board of directors of Haitel, one of the leading Haitian cell phone companies and my firm has provided security sector advisory services to the central government. More recently we have worked with Simact, a Haitian-American owned company that owns one hotel in Jacmel and is now developing a state of the art hotel-condominium complex, also in Jacmel.
I am writing with knowledge but with no pretense at being an expert when it comes to Haiti. I have stayed at the hotels that are now collapsed mausoleums, housing the remains of unfortunate guests and visitors all of whose names we may never know. I have walked on the streets that are now choked with refugees and corpses and the stench of death that may never completely dissipate. I have laughed, worked and dined with Haitians who have lost their homes, their life possessions, their family heirlooms and their parents and children.
There is a funereal aspect about this disaster. It is almost as if we are not only witness to the death of countless thousands. It is as if we are witness to the slow and inevitable death of an entire country. But while this tragedy is all too real, while the sorrow is all too profound, while clouds of despair darken any perspective on the foreseeable future – amazingly, incredibly and wonderfully, there is the glint of the glimmer of a ray of hope.
The history of human civilization contains a virtually endless catalogue of cities and countries that have been razed by nature or the human hand. And that includes the revival and renaissance of so many of those same destroyed cities and countries.
In recent memory we only have to look at the fact that during the nineteenth century three major cities virtually burned to the ground, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of lives. In all three instances, the immediate view was that London, New York City and Chicago would never rise again. Their epitaphs were already typeset.
The Great Fire of London in 1848 turned out to be a transformative turning point for that city. The fire demolished a dilapidated and ancient infrastructure that was replaced with an urban environment that formed the basis for the modern London that we know.
The Great Fire of New York City in 1835 cleared away the detritus of centuries of unplanned development. The disaster occasioned by the destructive force of the fire cleared the way for the planned development of Manhattan and the origins of the grid development of the island has served as a model for urban planners for almost two hundred years.
The Great Fire of Chicago in 1871 killed hundreds instead of thousands, but it still wreaked incredible havoc upon what was then one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. The fire did not only provide an opportunity for modern, planned redevelopment. The fire also provided an opportunity for the leadership of Chicago to demonstrate to the world that, in overcoming tragedy and triumphing over disaster, Chicago was now ready to take its place as not just a large city, but as a great city.
The analogy is applicable; the destruction in Haiti appears to be of biblical proportions. But the Bible also speaks of miracles and transformations and if there was ever a time and place for miracles, it is right now, in Haiti.
The awful calamity in Haiti provides an opportunity to install a modern, twenty first century infrastructure to replace the barely serviceable one that existed until January 12th. All of the creativity related to low cost housing, energy efficient transportation, alternative energy resources and modern urban planning can be brought to Haiti without concern for displacement and disruption. The earthquake has already done that.
The disaster has created the world’s largest living laboratory for devising the very best practices for insuring quality education, clean water supplies and ecologically friendly industrial development. The oft-criticized leadership of Haiti has a God-given chance to seize this miraculous and transformative time.
Even while the dead are being mourned and the tears are being shed, the leadership of Haiti must insist, must demand, that this time past will not be prologue. The current aid that is being shipped to Haiti must, of necessity, address the survival of the people. The aid that the people of Haiti need for the future must reflect the creativity and innovation that already exists so that by the dawn of the next decade Haiti will have truly experienced the renaissance that Haitians deserve.
To build shacks and shanty towns on the wreckage of shacks and shanty towns would be a sin. To patch up the ramshackle infrastructure would be unconscionable. To look at the status quo ante as a goal would be criminally foolish.
There are universities and foundations and organizations throughout the world that can go to Haiti to demonstrate the viability of the new age approaches to development that have worked only on a limited scale to date. The newly formed Clinton Bush Fund, intended to raise funds for the recovery of Haiti must, after providing monies for survival aid and assistance, insist that the funding for redevelopment take place within the context of transformative change. Haiti can be the grand stage that will conclusively prove to the rest of the world that the time has truly come for these new age approaches to development.
To do otherwise would dishonor the dead. To do otherwise would demonstrate total disregard for the awful suffering endured by the living. To do otherwise would be to ignore the opportunity that has accompanied this awful disaster. To do any less would be to do nothing at all.
Wallace Ford is the Principal of Fordworks Associates, a New York-based management consulting firm and is the author of two novels, The Pride and What You Sow.