It was five years ago that the images of those desperate to survive in hurricane ravaged New Orleans splashed across our television screens. For so many Americans, especially African- Americans, the treatment of the victims of Katrina confirmed our worst fears. Our government would abandon us in the time of our greatest need. Despite the efforts of many, those whose lives touched Hurricane Katrina's aftermath will never be made whole.
It has been heartbreaking to see the devastation that continues years after. Joblessness, poverty and displacement remain. Heartwarming stories of overcoming adversity are sadly few and far between. We have learned many lessons from Katrina. The lessons learned must inform and impact how we deal with disasters nationally and internationally.
Hurricane Katrina reminded those of us in the U.S., and illustrated to the world, the severe consequences of government inaction. This led to the slow response for assistance and unnecessary suffering by those affected by the hurricane. Large charitable organizations came under scrutiny for moving not fast enough and attempted to counteract the allegations as soon as possible. Such a restrained response was blamed largely on the centralization of power and decision-making in Washington, far away from the events unfolding in the Gulf Coast. I am sorry to say that such centralized aid relief is being replicated throughout Haiti, and the world, despite what we have learned.
Less than 1500 miles away in Port au Prince, the international community is ignoring many of the important lessons from Katrina. Relief and recovery from Haiti's January earthquake has many similarities to Katrina. Unnecessary loss of life, massive destruction of communities along with a short-term commitment defined these situations. Despite the best efforts of many, the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will mark another weak point in Haiti's recovery and reconstruction.
Following the forced displacement of tens of thousands of people due to Hurricane Katrina, vast attempts at voter registration for those displaced to other parishes, cities and states was made a priority. Early ballots were made available for displaced residents via satellite voting centers set up throughout Louisiana. And while those elected have not always focused on the priorities of those made refugees by Katrina, efforts were made to include them in the process.
This has not been the case in Haiti to date. Attempts to ensure enfranchisement (via National Identification Cards (CINs), electoral lists and polling locations) have been sluggish. Between March and April 2010 the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) conducted a study to assess the feasibility of the upcoming elections in Haiti. They concluded that holding the presidential and legislative elections together before the end of the year was most "reasonable, feasible and logical." Their recommendations, however, were also highly dependent upon Haiti's electoral council (the CEP) addressing many issues.
These issues continue to be outstanding and include the need for production and distribution of National Identification cards, particularly for those who have been displaced. Another issue is polling stations, unlike after Katrina, there is no current plan to have polling stations set up in areas were the displaced have moved. One UN official stated that allowing such access would encourage the displaced to stay in camps. It is as if Haitians would not want to go home if they could!
There has been a lot of talk in the US about the upcoming elections in Haiti. Most has centered on the candidacy of Wyclef Jean, a Haitian born rapper whose has spent most of his life in the US. His would-be candidacy however is not the issue at stake in these elections. Like during Katrina, there must be a real plan to make sure the displaced in Haiti can vote.
Haiti was found by ex-slaves and indentured people who believed that at least one republic in the New World should be a refuge for African people. Like the people of New Orleans, the Haitian people are proud of their history and their culture. The Haitian people know that a real participatory democracy is the only way to ensure a real dignified future for their children.
Nicole C. Lee is the president of TransAfrica Forum.