On 12 January 2010 an already convalescent Haiti was shaken to trauma. The earthquake levelled a country that was still recovering from the devastating 2008 cyclones and its tectonic magnitude and impact is dwarfed by the extent of the physical and emotional damages suffered by the Haitian people.
The numbers are sobering and defy imagination: hundreds of thousands victims - killed, maimed, homeless or distressed; hundreds of thousands of buildings destroyed, including homes, schools, universities museums, government and administrative buildings, archives, libraries and stores. This all spells an unbearable tragedy. In the words of Haiti's President, René Préval, "On January 12, the Haitian State collapsed in a single minute". Indeed, the Port-au-Prince earthquake shook the country to its foundations.
Because the social fabric of Haiti was ripped along the fault line, international assistance cannot be limited only to the physical needs of the population - health, water, food and security. This is one main lesson learned by United Nations agencies in years of international disaster assistance in many countries: to build back better, short term emergency measures must be immediately linked to and integrated with mid- and longterm recovery programmes.
Helping Haitians recover and rebuild calls for sustained efforts on their parts and of the international community and the friends of Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, Leogane and Cabaret, the high death toll and the unending rubble did not result only from the natural disaster but also from human shortcomings. The sad fact is that countries are far from equal before disasters. Natural disasters crush developing countries with more impact and destruction than others, given their fragility. Devastating effects are long lasting to the point of jeopardizing any development efforts and gains of preceding years. Beyond responding to and helping to alleviate the humanitarian emergency, the Haitian rebuilding task will comprise a complex development effort, with being at its heart above all a twofold social development challenge. To be sure, Haitians need safer buildings, bridges, power plants or roads. But the multiple physical infrastructure needs are only one aspect of the picture. Without a workable education system or trained teachers, what would be the point of having school and university buildings, even if built back in a safer manner? Haitians cannot hope to own the renovation and the development of their country if there is no focus on the "soft" infrastructure of the nation, which must include as building blocks governance, education, the sciences, culture, communication and information. Complementing bricks and mortar, the formation of human support and knowledge networks and advice for appropriate policies, capacity-building and social innovation will be indispensable for Haitian society to regain self-confidence and resilience.