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Haitians must help shape their own future

Rebuilding after the earthquake should not be a job only for the international community.

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Notice that US and other foreign officials visiting Haiti have bent over backward to say they are working with the government of this earthquake-shaken country – not controlling it.

“We are working to back them up, but not to supplant them,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on her way to Haiti last Saturday.

The distinction is important for several reasons. History, for one. The US, despite its proximity, has had an uneasy and unsteady relationship with its Caribbean neighbor over the decades. Its record of intervention and assistance is mixed.

At the same time, Haiti’s government, led by President René Préval, deserves international recognition of its legitimacy – even as a small core of government ministers, overwhelmed by the scale of destruction and its own losses, attempts to function from a police headquarters building near the damaged airport.

Most important, though, if Haiti is to turn from its pattern of extreme poverty and political upheaval, Haitians must help shape their own future. As tragic as the earthquake was, it also presents an opportunity to redirect and rebuild. Success is more likely if Haitians themselves have a stake in it.

The media are full of inspiring stories about individual initiative: people pulling others from rubble with their bare hands, assembling makeshift shelters, strategizing on how to bring back their businesses. But it is not too soon to think about Haiti’s needs after the recovery-and-relief phase is over, and how to involve the Haitian government and people in rebuilding.

Admirably, that very thought process is already under way. Over the weekend, Mr. Préval met with international donors in the Dominican Republic, which borders Haiti. Dominican President Leonel Fernández suggested that a five-year, $10-billion plan would be needed. Next week, foreign ministers – and the Haitian prime minister – will gather in Canada to discuss a rebuilding strategy. Then back to the Dominican Republic for more planning in April.

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