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Posted November 12, 2008
Governance and Tragedy                
The images from the collapsed school in Haiti are horrifying: bloody, dusty children with fear in their eyes. At least 92 (Images) people have died. President Renć Prćval has said the building collapsed because it wasn't built to code. In fact, it seems it was little more than a pile of concrete blocks. It was the kind of building that wouldn't have been allowed in a country where building codes, and other laws, are enforced. "What we need is political stability," Mr. Prval told journalists.

That connection between a crumpled school and national politics parallels another recent disaster, this one in China in May, after a serious earthquake. There, too, shoddy construction was blamed. But there are differences between the two tragedies. Email to a friend Printer friendly Font:****

In China, the state felt it had to respond to the grief and anger of parents -- although its response alternated between the Communist party's usual defensiveness and a more enlightened willingness to investigate.

In Haiti, where even the president sounds helpless and desperate, why should parents even bother expressing their outrage? Yet they did, even if they didn't expect anything to change. United Nations peacekeepers confronted a crowd of angry people at the rescue site. It may be that the crowd was hindering the rescue operation, but the UN's role in the country seems, increasingly, to be about keeping a lid on the people's anger rather than helping the government create peace and stability. The preacher who owned and built the school has, according to reports, been charged with involuntary manslaughter. Whether or not he is guilty of a crime, it is a crime that was more likely to go unchecked in a poor and politically volatile country. Haiti is a major recipient of Canadian aid. The relationship between the two countries is strong and can be productive. The collapse of the school shows that Canada must continue to pressure the government of Haiti to improve.

Governance is a dry word that makes people think of paper-pushing bureaucrats and jargon-filled reports. But it's the foundation of development. No country can thrive without it. Indeed, as the example of Haiti shows, without good governance, people die. It might be a slow death by hunger, or a faster death by violence, or they might die in the rubble of some preventable accident. As much as Canadians complain about what goes on on Parliament Hill, the fact is that governance is something Canada does relatively well. The more we can share our expertise with developing countries, the more lives we will save.

The Canadian people can act on their own to help the people of Haiti, too. Just as Canadians gave generously after the China earthquake, they can give now to organizations that are working to help the victims of the school collapse in Haiti, or who are helping improve the country's infrastructure to prevent future accidents. Grassroots organizations, such as Engineers Without Borders, already lend expertise in the creation and maintenance of basic infrastructure, especially in sanitation.

Things fall apart when the centre cannot hold. Without political stability, as Mr. Prval said, buildings crumble. A country with a dysfunctional national government will collapse, and that collapse will be begin in its wells and its roads, its bridges and schools and clinics.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008. Reprinted from The Ottawa Citizen of Wednesday, November 12, 2008.
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