Interview with UNESCO Special Envoy for Haiti Michaëlle Jean
Above: Former Canadian Governor General and UNESCO Special Envoy to Haiti Michaelle Jean (UN Photo/Mark Garten)
By Alexander Britell
CURRENT UNESCO SPECIAL ENVOY FOR HAITI Michaëlle Jean recently concluded a trip to Haiti during which she led a 20-member delegation. Jean, a native of Jacmel, Haiti who came to Canada as a refugee in 1968, served as Canada’s Governor General from 2005 to 2010. The recent trip included Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume and world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie. Jean was appointed as UNESCO’s Special Envoy to the country in August 2010. To learn more, Caribbean Journal talked to Jean about what she found on the trip and what kind of progress she is seeing in Haiti.
Talk about your most recent trip to Haiti, and what stood out.
As UNESCO special envoy to Haiti, I’m here quite often, almost once every month and a half or two months, and this time I brought with me an important delegation of about 20 people. The idea was to address two things. First, the civil protection and fire protection services in Haiti, because the situation is very dire. I think of all the Haitian firemen who, during the earthquake, really supported the international teams to rescue and search for people, who really worked with all their courage and sense of duty, but are now working from a building that is almost completely destroyed. It’s very risky for them to work in a building that is damaged. And they have almost no equipment. The President of Haiti [Michel Martelly] has raised my attention on the situation, and asked me to see if Canada could come and support the reinforcement of the services in Haiti. So I collected a group of Canadians who have been involved in Haiti over the last two years, working with local authorities in different municipalities, building infrastructure and supporting municipal and local governments. So I raised the attention about strategies that could be efficient to support Haiti in that field of fire services. The mayor of Quebec City [Regis Labeaume] wanted to accompany me with a team of specialists from Quebec City. The commander of the fire services of Port-au-Prince, who’s also responsible for all the services in the country, has also mentioned and stressed the issue of professionalizing his teams and the teams across everywhere in Haiti. So a delegation came from a special college in Ottawa where they train firemen and really help structure efficient and professional service. We need to work with Haitian partners to make sure that Haitians would really take ownership of all the knowledge and experience and make it sustainable. So that was one part of the delegation.
What was the other part?
With me was also architect Moshe Safdie, one of the five most renowned urbanists and architects in the world. He came all the way from Singapore, where he is working on a huge project. And he came to Haiti, not to negotiate a contract, but to bring all of his networks, his experience, his expertise to look carefully at the Haitian plan in reconstruction efforts. All of the government Ministries and departments collapsed during the earthquake, only one wasn’t destroyed, but it was severely damaged. And 30 percent of Haiti’s civil servants perished. So Haiti needs to rebuild its infrastructure and really shelter all of the administration and government employees. So Moshe Safdie took a very close look at the whole strategy, and what is being built. It was quite interesting to see him working with the Haitian teams, and the firms who are engaged in the process. Haiti is like a huge building site right now, a huge construction site. Because so much needs to be rebuilt, including new neighbourhoods with special housing, so for an urbanist and architect of great value, with a lot of heart, it was quite exciting to go be there — he was very moved to see all of the challenges. Also in the delegation was a constructor of Catamaran boats, Jean-Francois Fountaine [the founder of Fountaine Pajot], who also came to Haiti to bring his networks
What are you seeing right now in Haiti’s economy?
The country is struggling to build its economy and emerge from total dependency on international aid and assistance. The country really wants to have a sustainable economy, and one part that is important is tourism, as it is to all countries in the world and the Caribbean region. Right now there is a reflection about a strategic and regional strategy for tourism in the Caribbean. Haiti needs to come with a valuable and unique offering, so the nautical sector and services are very important, for Haiti to, at some point have a rich proposition for future tourists.” Haiti used to be the first [Caribbean] destination for tourists, especially from Canada, and the country really wants to grow that clientele back and has a lot to offer. For example, Haiti has many monuments which are classified as part of [UNESCO] world heritage, and the island is absolutely beautiful. The people are very warm and welcoming. I would say that the challenges are many, but Haiti is still really trying to pool all of its efforts to build on that important leverage that is tourism.
Part of your trip did focus on tourism – what potential did you observe as far as Haiti’s tourism product?
In the north, you have the historic park, where you have the Citadelle, Sans Souci and Ramier. It speaks powerfully to the desires of emancipation that are part of Haiti, the experience in Haiti’s history. Not just for the country itself, but for humanity. I think the Haitian example is quite amazing and unique. It was the first Black republic of the world, and it also supported Simon Bolivar, for example, in the expedition against the colonial powers that gave birth to many of the countries of the Americas. So I think that such an experience is so unique and powerful ,and this is one of the things that Haiti has to offer. The city of Cap Haitien is absolutely beautiful, with this amazing vernacular architecture that, once restored, is a beautiful heritage that people are very proud of. Of course, in terms of sanitation, there are some sectors where a lot of work will need to be done, and I think that we need to find the right partner to do that. But Haiti’s government is itself investing money, thanks to some funds coming from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe, and the plans for Cap Haitien are quite amazing. Also, in what we would call the “intangible” Haiti, the intangible cultural heritage, Haiti’s spirituality, is so rich. It is so incredible and so rich, and the delegation was amazed to engage with these communities and their rituals. So despite all of the devastation that Haiti has suffered, despite the many challenges, and also having to address the situation of extreme poverty, you also find in Haiti the determination to build a very strong and sustainable economy there. The will is there, and Haiti has a very solid plan. So we’re hoping very much that the country will experience the necessary stability that it takes to really implement this agenda and achieve all of these goals. But it was quite encouraging to see how motivated and mobilized the population is. Right now, Haiti has a government that is very eager to see results, and very patient, and very eager to come in with what some would say is an entrepreneurial approach, which is probably a good one for a country that needs to be rebuilt. And so we are holding our fingers crossed that stability remains, the political stability that Haiti needs to really take that important step in its history.
What are the biggest priorities for UNESCO in Haiti?
I think what UNESCO is doing is really supporting Haiti’s capacities and the government’s capacity to achieve its plan. The plan was validated at the UN in March 2010, and it was about territorial reconstruction, social reconstruction, economic reconstruction and institutional reconstruction. The UNESCO fields of competence are education, science, culture and communication, so for all of these aspects, UNESCO is there to really support the government’s objective, and to bring on board partners that are relevant, and to really be there, with civil society and with the different government departments in the fields of culture, tourism and education — because education is abosolutely key.
What kind of observations did you make with respect to education?
We had an amazing dialogue with students of the new campus just built by the Dominican Republic in Haiti, in the northern part of the country, in the region called Limonade. It’s the first campus of the State University of Haiti that is decentralized, that is, outside the capital, and it’s a beautiful structure. It was nice to engage in that discussion with the students, talking about the potential of Haiti, and also their own spirit of entrepreneurship and their initiatives. And you can see how much the young people want to be part of the solution for Haiti, part of the strategy. and how wonderful it is to accompany them as they dream big to achieve enough. So that is very important. More than 60 percent of the country is under 30, so that’s where the hope is.
What would you like to see for Haiti within the Caribbean region?
The Caribbean strategy is very important – for all of the countries of the region to get together to pool their efforts, knowing that if Haiti succeeds, it’s going to be a success shared by all of the countries in the region.