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From Saltspring to Haiti: a message of hope

Sep 28 2012

Nigel Fisher could be taking it easy enjoying the waterfront from his Saltspring Island home. But the 65-year-old crisis expert prefers to spend "18-hour days, seven-day weeks" on the job in Haiti - the poorest country in the western hemisphere even before the catastrophic earthquake of 2010.

Within three weeks of the Jan. 12 quake, the United Nations assistant secretary-general was in the country, where he co-ordinated roughly 4,000 staff in humanitarian and development activities.

"I actually enjoy this - I think what I do best is working in crisis

situation," he said in an interview. Fisher is speaking at the University of Victoria tonight as part of the school's 50th-anniversary events.

He would like to dispel the media coverage that tends to take a negative view of Haiti and denies the evidence of hope he sees on the ground.

"If the Haitian glass is 10 per cent full, let's recognize that while we tackle the 90 per cent," he said.

Granted, he said, only baby steps have been taken in the big picture of what Haiti needs to do.

"But, certainly, if you compare the situation to the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, you can see a lot of visible change."

Among the examples he cites are a dramatic drop in the number of homeless people, an increase in the number of children in school, the slow extension of health care, a reduction in cholera cases from 500,000 to 100,000, and 600 kilometres of roads built largely from rubble.

The quake left 220,000 people dead and more than 1.5 million displaced and living in tents in 1,500 camps. That's down to 369,000 people in 550 camps.

"That's still a lot of people, but it's still a quarter of what it was," Fisher said. But the last of the $2.4 billion in humanitarian aid is just about gone, so "the conditions are not great."

Lots of questions remain about where the money went.

"Of course, there is corruption, but to me, it's a marvel that the majority of Haitians survive with so little," he said.

The UN created hundreds of thousands of short-term jobs to move 10 million cubic metres of rubble from streets to be reused as road-building materials. Poor areas and slums that didn't have pathways have them now, Fisher said.

Less than half of Haitian children attended school pre-quake, but that's now closer to 60 per cent. Still, there is more than 40 per cent unemployment and most people live on less than $2 a day. A huge prison population still awaits trial and it's hard to even get mangoes to the export market unbruised. Another major challenge: convincing the power elite to govern in the interest of Haitians, not themselves.

Fisher said aid agencies must work with Haitians to strengthen national institutions, government, private and financial sectors and community groups.

"Because at the end of the day, Haiti's only going to function when Haitians are running it," he said.

Yet every aspect of what makes a country work needs to be addressed all while trying to prepare for the next earthquake.

Nigel Fisher giving a free lecture, Is There Hope for Haiti?, at 7 tonight at UVic's Bob Wright Centre, room 150.

kdedyna@timescolonist.com