Experts on culture, national disasters discuss Haiti’s reconstruction

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Five specialists on Haitian history, tradition, politics, and natural disasters discussed Monday the importance of involving the Haitian people in the reconstruction of their country in the wake of the devastating earthquake earlier this month.

“This is an opportunity to return integrity to the Haitian population. They need to feel as though they were an integral part of their re-construction,” said Kyrah Malika Daniels, the junior curator of the National Museum of American History.

Speaking at the Elliott School, panelists said Haiti’s instability is rooted in the denigration of its people, they agreed that proper infrastructure must now be built in order to prevent this from occurring again.

“What needs to happen in Haiti right now is to get a really solid infrastructure in place in terms of arrivals, treatment, recovery, rescue, and sustenance,” Daniels said.

Daniels emphasized the importance of spirituality amongst the Haitians and how that faith should be recognized in relief efforts.

“Secular organizations just can’t seem to get as far as religious organizations, because Haitians are so heavily religious,” Daniels said.

Robert Maguire – an international affairs professor at Trinity University who has been working with United Nations officials, the Haitian government and the U.S. government to rebuild Haiti – advocates the creation of a civil service corps, which he said would create jobs for Haitians.

“I think this is Haiti’s real future,” Maguire said.

Since the quake, Haitians have been migrating back to their villages. Maguire said “welcome centers” with medical services and basic necessities should be established.

Sidney Mintz, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, said the “challenges” Haiti faces “would be better understood if the distinct history and character of the Haitian people was recognized.”

When the international community rushes to help victims of natural disaster without understanding the country or its people they create more bad than good, said Julia Frank, associate clinical professor of psychology at GW.

“Whatever is done has to be culturally aligned with whatever is already there,” Frank said.

Erica James, a professor of anthropology at MIT, said two important long-term goals are to bolster Haiti’s institutions and to maintain stability, but Haitians must be included in this process.

When the panel was asked how Haiti should be reconstructed, Drexel Glenn Woodson, an anthropology professor at University of Arizona replied with a simple statement.

“The Haitians are going to have to decide,” Woodson said.

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