How will the world help Haiti rebuild?

I first met this charismatic, insightful and dedicated international civil servant in an earlier life when he was a Salvadoran politician. In Haiti, where he was a true game-changer, I worked with him on Haiti’s elections in 2000 and in 2006.

The U.N.’s staff at the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) peacekeeping mission are now, like so many other things in the country, decimated.

It breaks the heart to see so many blood-strewn bodies in the streets and the city’s few hospitals, along with icons where I once visited and worked like the National Palace, the National Legislature and Montana Hotel, all in ruins.

But Americans aren’t necessarily seeing the full picture of Haiti, even if the coverage has been comprehensive, duly respectful and restrained. I cringed when I heard that NBC’s “Today Show” commissioned the overemotional Ann Curry and Al Roker to cover the earthquake in Haiti.

Yet, their first reports were reverent and reserved. I’ve already seen dozens of references to the strength, religious conviction and generosity of the Haitian people. Frankly, reporters seem to be bending over backwards not to blame the victims by stating the obvious — that this tragedy is made much worse by the fact that Haiti’s government, economy and infrastructure was already a giant mess.

In the days to come, as descriptions of scenes of death and destruction widen their scope to consider the broader implications of the quake, reporters will likely — and rightly — be asking what, if anything, can be done to stabilize and rebuild Haiti. To adequately address those questions, they’ll need to understand Haiti’s recent political and economic history.

Before the quake, there were signs of improvement in the desperately impoverished nation. The U.N.’s stabilization mission in Haiti has brought political stability since June 2004, led to positive GDP growth and the beginning of foreign investment in the nation. There has been a stable government since President René Preval’s 2006 election. And while the Senate election in 2009 was quite irregular, Haiti’s political trends have generally been improving.

Yet, 90 percent of Haiti’s economy is in the informal sector, meaning that it is neither taxed nor monitored by the government. So, it is difficult to know if improvement reflected in official statistics is trickling down to the people. Food riots less than two years ago suggest that they had not, and led to the resignation of the prime minister.

Despite that, the Haitian state itself has not been able to take a lead role in the current crisis. This is the result of its history and the legacy of international paternalism.

As in Afghanistan, where the Hamid Karzai government has been accused of electoral and political corruption, Haitian governments since Jean-Claude Duvalier in the 1980s have been distrusted by the international community.

Instead of a normal level of assistance to the Haitian government to develop its capacities, foreign donors have created a system of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that do good work but are unaccountable to Haitians. Meanwhile, the resource-strapped Haitian government cannot provide public safety, education or health.

Given the nation’s dearth of resources, I hope that the U.S. Marines will be able to secure relief supplies on behalf of the Haitian people; otherwise, even more chaos could befall the country.

In 1991, for example, after the coup against President Aristide, Haitian warehouses were ransacked. Such panic rushes for basic necessities like food and water are typical of life in refugee camps (and certainly not unique to Haiti, as similar rushes have occurred in Afghanistan, Pakistan and, yes, New Orleans).

Some of the recent scenes from the disaster zone inevitably have exploited the human suffering without any sense of the privacy of those suffering. While the media will always present the most shocking images, at least this will induce the U.S. and other governments to respond quickly and the American public generously.

As the trickle of relief operations commences, I hope the news media will give us examples of heroism, to be sure — but also that they will tell Haiti’s story in a way that illustrates the tragedy there without indulging in voyeurism.

In the long run, journalists ought to focus on assessing the quality of the humanitarian relief response to the earthquake.

And while the emergency response to Haiti’s current tragedy must continue to rely on the NGOs’ parallel infrastructure, handled by the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at a certain point the dysfunctional Haitian state has to learn to provide education, health and other basic services on its own.

If Haiti continues to be a charity ward based on NGOs that are accountable to the international donors and charities, but not to Haitians themselves, Haiti’s citizens will never be able to develop their own state institutions.

While the immediate priority now has to be, of course, the survival of the quake’s victims, in the long run, Haitians need to become participants in their own development, rather than stigmatized recipients of charity. And the immense challenge of realizing that goal should be the context in which Haiti’s story is told.

Henry “Chip” Carey teaches political science at Georgia State University. This article was adapted from a posting on cjr.org.

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