Abby Maxman is the country director in Haiti for CARE, an international relief organization that has been trying to help rehabilitate Haiti for 50 years.
The country is still struggling to emerge from an annus horribilis -- rampant violence that followed former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's departure early in 2004, spring flooding that killed 2,500 and a September hurricane that killed 3,000. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and things are not getting better. Juan Gabriel Valdes, the United Nations' special representative for Haiti, recently said the country could "self-destruct" if it doesn't get the international assistance it needs.
Maxman sat down with ABC News ahead of a U.N. Security Council visit to Haiti last week, the first visit by the council to any Central American country, to discuss Haiti's problems.
How do you keep attention on Haiti when you have to compete with, say, Iraq, and an international donor conference for Darfur?
I spent 10 years in Great Lakes, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and southern Africa. And coming to Haiti, what has left me almost speechless at times is the fact that -- when I come here to New York for example -- I don't have jet lag. It took me three hours to get nonstop from Port-au-Prince to here and it takes me 90 minutes to get to Miami. And when I walk around some of the slums in Gonaïves and see the conditions people are living in, it is unacceptable in any place on Earth. And then the reality that we are 90 minutes from the United States and even from a pure policy, say, of containment, shall we say -- as oversimplified as that is -- we're neighbors. It's not quite Cuba, but it's pretty close. And it's an outrage how some people are living no matter where they are.
For me, there's a moral imperative and a humanitarian imperative that is so compelling. I don't know why we're all not standing on top of roofs screaming. I feel that way as well about the Sudan and other countries -- I don't want to minimize ... It's amazing. It defies my understanding.
There seems to be a lack of political will. How do you cope with that?
The unfortunate thing about political will -- it tends to be in response to attention, which tends to be in response to acute crisis. And therefore the missing ingredient when we're in chronic low-boil crisis is ... the media attention that sustains pressure.
Walter Lippman once said "News is what protrudes from the ordinary." How do you convince the media -- and the international community and its main donors -- that this violence isn't "ordinary?"
I think people become numb ... to chronic crisis or to kind of this low-boil suffering that continues. And resources -- people living up to the pledges that are made ... Roller coaster is the image, or certainly the graphic, that you would see in terms of international aid and commitment ... How do you make that into a reality, that sustained and increased commitment -- not just financial but political will to support long-term processes, policies from bilateral organizations, multilateral -- everybody. So it's been just: the acute crisis, everybody responds, acute crisis ends, transitions to the chronic crisis, which becomes "normal" or accepted, and everyone leaves, and you have that same vacuum and the potential for an explosive situation.
So I think to even get the confidence of the people back, the sustained investment needs to be demonstrated over time. And what I keep saying is: I couldn't put a real dollar tag amount to it, but if you want to just look at a bottom-line perspective, it's cheaper to invest in this sustained way. Just doing these big massive influxes in response to the acute emergencies are not only costly in humanitarian terms -- and it is -- but just pure cost.
There is a debate within the international community about how aggressive peacekeepers should be. The U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti, as well as in the Congo, has used assertive tactics that we might not have seen just a few years ago. Has it helped?
This year, we've seen a more proactive peacekeeping mission, going into the big slum areas -- Bel Air, Croix de Bouquets and certainly even up in Saut d'Eau Central Plateau in Gonaïves, in doing this similar -- I don't want to say what is happening in the Congo, but the more proactive. It takes me back -- I joined CARE in Rwanda right after the genocide. And the travesty that happened there with passive peacekeeping ...
The peacekeepers are one major ingredient that's keeping the lid on at the moment in Haiti and also ensuring that the interim government can stay in place throughout the upcoming election and transition process. It's not the only element by any stretch, but the presence -- and through presence, it can't just be a passive presence ... One needs to patrol, be active, be seen, be visible and in that way it's an important contributor to peacekeeping in Haiti in the context of a failed state that has an interim government that is not always accepted by the entire international community and national community.
The Security Council is visiting Haiti in part to help plan for the elections, planned for the fall. Are they on track?
What organizations like CARE and the NGOs feel strongly that absolutely that the elections -- the whole election process -- needs major investment immediately, if not yesterday. It needs to be speeded up and get back on track, because the timeline is so tight and there's no room, no margin for slippage. But it's not just the elections -- it's the transition after the elections. And we're concerned about the elections being this milepost, if you will, and then, 'OK, the elections are over,' and then everybody zipping back off to business as usual -- and then no government will stand a chance without sustained and increased investment.
Is there a way to prevent that?
The elections on their own is not the end, and it all has to be integrated -- coming through with those pledges so that people can actually move forward with the work. The election process -- registration officially began April 1. This isn't to blame any one entity, but they're certainly way behind. It's obvious on that. The process is not where it needs to be. If you look in Gonaïves, where 200,000 people live, the majority of whom lost their documents, their identification documents, six months ago -- 6,000 of whom have new documents. 6,000! Elections are in four or five months ... And that's a microcosm of what probably needs to happen. So the challenges are huge. So that actually means it's not just time to come to the table, come and make sure you fulfill the obligations -- it actually needs to be increased.
Ideally, what should the Security Council do?
I'm really dreaming here. A five- to-10-year commitment. Not saying that they need to -- the international community requires to be present at that point, for the entire period. But looking at key trip wires ... What are preconditions that ensure stability which would contribute to the ability to governments to govern? To ensure that developmental, economic and social developmental policies can be put in place, and that are sustainable.
We have many little success stories. We go to areas where we've worked over the past 40, 50 years, and we do encounter where we've been able to invest in the community level, and not just infrastructure or social services, but in terms of community-based processes that enable Haitians to continue to have a voice to manage and maintain their resources in ways that protect them and enable them to live a better quality of life.
A five- to 10-year commitment that really lays out that there is a real commitment that rebuilds the trust and if necessary it intimidates those that want to see an unstable Haiti to realize that they're in it in the long haul.
How far away is the international community from that kind of commitment?
In people's intent -- I think people desire that. [But] I think there are so many constraints -- we are very, very far.