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Leslie Buckley: We can help Haiti get on its feet and build a future

Walking around the streets of Port-au-Prince in Haiti days after the devastating earthquake of January 2010 was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. A whole city had fallen in upon itself and sadly taken nearly a quarter of a million of its citizens with it. Whole families were wiped out, generations lost, and there was not one person on those streets that day who had not been affected.

Today, the scenes of destruction and despair are still commonplace in Port-au-Prince. Everyone you meet has a harrowing tale from the earthquake. The fear of sleeping indoors has not gone away.

The international media can't understand how things have not progressed in two years, but the reality is that lying behind these appalling scenes are fundamental problems and challenges that two years alone cannot solve.

Before the earthquake in January of 2010, Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere. More than half the population lived on less than $1 (78c) a day and nearly half a million children had never been to school. Before the quake, this small country was screaming for help. It was only when the ground shook and those screams became literal that the international community finally took notice.

A total of $5.3bn (€4.1bn) of aid was pledged but to date only 21pc has been committed. With the growing financial pressures around the world, the prospect of these promises ever being fulfilled appears to be slowly slipping away.

The situation on the ground in Haiti makes these broken promises all the more poignant. More than 500,000 people -- men, women and children -- are still living in tents and under plastic in some of the 895 'internally displaced persons' (IDPs) camps throughout Haiti. They have limited access to basic facilities and in many cases thousands of people share few toilets and walk for miles to access clean water.

It was through some of these camps and similar that a cholera epidemic in October 2010 left a path of destruction in its wake, killing more than 7,000 people as it infiltrated into the daily lives of a struggling society.

A common grievance in the camps today is that following the earthquake the international aid organisations arrived in Haiti to provide services, but as their post-earthquake budgets dried up so too did their assistance. The solutions that were being provided in the wake of the quake, though critical at the time, were not sustainable.

In light of this, we must now encourage the country to move away from external assistance and instead actively work to help train and support local people in the provision of sustainable solutions.

It is this approach that will make a genuine and lasting difference to the future of Haiti. With a near 80pc unemployment rate, the provision of work is fundamental to the long-term recovery of Haiti.

Haven, the charity my wife Carmel and I founded in late 2008 after I had spent many years involved in Haiti on a professional level, operates alongside a number of Irish charities in Haiti, and provides employment to more than 600 local people on our building projects.

It aims to build sustainable communities through the provision of shelter, community development and the stimulation of local commerce.

It is not only through the NGO sector that Ireland can influence the reshaping of life in Haiti. As an entrepreneurial nation we can help in other ways. The benefits of setting up business in Haiti are notable and flow in both directions -- for Haitians there is employment, training and a stimulation of local economies; for the investor Haiti is only a one-hour flight from Miami and has preferential access to the US market for light-manufacturing.

Haiti has the lowest labour costs in the region and a relatively young labour force; there is a zero tax rate for new businesses up to 15 years with an additional five years of a digressive rate; and Haiti has also just ratified a law that increases protection for foreign investors when contracting with the government.

While this potential might seem a far cry for anyone who has recently walked the dusty and ravaged streets of Port-au-Prince, it is by nurturing such potential that things really can change.

Ireland can, and is, leading the way in this context and has developed what is prospering into a special friendship between our two countries.

This week (January 21--28) is the first 'Haiti Week' in Ireland and is bringing together eight leading charities and people from the business, music and arts community to raise awareness of Haiti, the struggles that continue and the potential that lies within.

This week, we will welcome the first visit of a Haitian president to Ireland, President Michel Martelly, in a visit that is symbolic of the work and positive impact that Irish people have had in Haiti.

We now need to believe in the people of Haiti and stand tall beside them. It is not the time for Ireland or the international community to take a step back. A future, albeit fragile, is now more than ever within their grasp.

Please go to haitiweek.org to learn how you can support Haiti Week.

Leslie Buckley is founder and chairman of Haven

Irish Independent