ATLANTA (Reuters) – The head of the U.N. World Health Organization on Wednesday praised U.S. healthcare reforms signed by President Barack Obama this week as a breakthrough, stepping into a sharp domestic political debate.
“The people in this country and their leaders are courageous. That (healthcare reform) is an unprecedented achievement,” WHO Director General Margaret Chan said.
ATLANTA, March 18 (Reuters) – Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter called on Thursday for direct talks between Israel and Palestinians toward a two-state Middle East solution, but said it would take a dramatic shift in Israeli policy.
Carter, who presided over the 1978 Camp David Accords that paved the way for peace between Israel and Egypt, has bluntly criticized successive Israeli governments in the past and has frequently been at odds with U.S. government policy.
In a speech at the Carter Center he condemned as "very embarrassing" Israel’s announcement last week during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that 1,600 more homes would be built for Jewish settlers near East Jerusalem.
There was no way the Arab world could accept a Palestinian state without East Jerusalem being shared as its capital, he said. "But it is going to require a dramatic change in the policy of the present government of Israel," he said.
Israel regards all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector captured 43 years ago, as its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of the state they hope to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"It is a tragic situation that we face now. I would say that we have not made any progress in the last year, and in fact we have probably gone downhill in trying to bring peace to the Israelis and to their neighbors," he said.
"However, it is appropriate not to give up hope. I think with a strong and determined commitment to the two state solution as spelled out by the international community and others … peace is still on the table," he said.
Palestinian anger over the new homes, echoed in Washington, has put plans for indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks in doubt.
Carter, 85, who served one term as president from 1977 to 1981, said bringing peace to the Middle East was the top international priority of his post-presidency work.
In a 2006 book, he described Israeli policy in the occupied territories as "a system of apartheid." (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and David Storey)
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – A mind-boggling number of people died in Haiti’s earthquake but it took a student ID card to turn the bare statistics into a reality for me.
I found the card while reporting at a site in the wilderness outside Port-au-Prince where the government buried more than 120,000 dead in the days after the January 12 disaster.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, March 16 (Reuters) – A mind-boggling number of people died in Haiti’s earthquake but it took a student ID card to turn the bare statistics into a reality for me.
I found the card while reporting at a site in the wilderness outside Port-au-Prince where the government buried more than 120,000 dead in the days after the Jan. 12 disaster.
The bodies were tipped without ceremony from dump trucks into unmarked mass graves. As mechanical diggers churned earth over them, the ID card had somehow remained on the surface.
It read: Mona Fabre, born 24th September, 1983. Student status: current.
Back at my home in Atlanta, the card weighed on my mind.
Who was the woman with braided hair and dark eyes who stared back at the camera? How had she lived and died? Perhaps it would be possible to track down her family, even bring some kind of closure.
The card identified her as a student of the USA Alphama English School. In an effort to find answers, I contacted the e-mail address given on the ID card, explaining that I had information about one of their students. There was no response.
Undeterred, I made time between stories on a return trip to Haiti to try to track the college down. It wasn’t easy. There are many private colleges in Port-au-Prince and no one I spoke with had heard of the Alphama school.
On my final day I got lucky. Driving past a building near the center of town I spotted an advert for the school painted onto a wall, complete with an address and cell phone contact.
Ave. Muller is a narrow street, part residential and part commercial, which rolls across low hills. An open sewer runs under one section.
The college was there, but was reduced to rubble. As the ground shook on Jan. 12, its concrete walls had popped open and now its roof almost touched the ground.
At least I knew how Mona Fabre died, or so I thought.
A man answered the college cell phone and said he would come and speak to me. So I waited, sitting on a stool in the shade and watching the street life pass by, amid the rubble.
A DREAM SHATTERED
Eventually not one, but three men arrived together, all leaders of the organization that founded the college.
One was a professor at the main university in the linguistics department, which had also collapsed in the quake. He survived because he was in the library at the time.
The second was an accountant who worked as an elementary school teacher because there was no work in his profession. The third said he learned English in the U.S. army reserves, but had returned home and now made his living as a bodyguard.
They said they had founded the Alphama English School a decade ago to teach English to the Haitian people. From humble beginnings it had grown to an institution with 1,000 part-time students in two buildings, and a third was planned.
Their vision was for something even bigger. Or it had been. Now Alphama was in ruins.
"I don’t want to explain how I feel," said Alexandre Odil, staring at the collapsed ruin with tears in his eyes. "We had started something. We hope it’s not lost."
All three men plus their families now live in temporary accommodation or in tents, like so many Haitians in the wrecked capital. Getting by day to day is a more immediate priority than teaching English.
"We will restart it one day but it will be a long-term project," Odil said.
Their story was a reminder that the quake took more than simply people. It also shattered plans and dreams.
But what about the students? Thirteen staff members were holding a meeting in the college when the earthquake struck, Odil said. Only three survived. Ten bodies were still trapped inside.
The students, however, studied at the weekend because it was a part-time college. The quake happened on a Tuesday.
Finally, I asked about Mona Fabre. They looked at me blankly. They couldn’t recall that particular student and all their records were on computer, buried beneath tons of rubble.
Haiti’s president says up to 300,000 people may have died in the quake.
I found Mona’s ID card at the barren burial grounds and although I know the chances are slim, I’d like to think that it was picked up from the rubble of her college, that she escaped death and that, along with more than 9 million Haitians, she can still help build a better country from the ruins. (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Kieran Murray)
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Haitian President Rene Preval plans to tell U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday that food aid to the earthquake-devastated Caribbean nation should be stopped because of the risk of damaging its economy.
The two men will meet at the White House in the wake of a January 12 quake that killed 230,000 people, according to Haitian government estimates, crippled the economy and devastated much of the capital Port-au-Prince and other cities.
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Government planners and international experts are racing to produce a blueprint this week to reconstruct Haiti’s economy after the earthquake that killed up to 300,000 people and devastated its infrastructure.
A team of 150 Haitian government officials and 90 international experts is to submit the plan to the government by Friday, said Doekle Wielinga, a World Bank disaster recovery specialist in charge of the effort.
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Nearly two months after Haiti’s earthquake a shocking number of people lack shelter because aid groups are slow to deliver tents and tarpaulins, the international medical relief organization Medecins Sans Frontieres said on Friday.
The result is a loss of human dignity and the potential for misery and disease will increase when the rainy season arrives in April, said Colette Gadenne, emergency coordinator in Haiti for MSF.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, March 4 (Reuters) – Haiti’s earthquake-hit
economy is expected to shrink by at least 10 percent this year,
a senior U.S. Treasury official said on Thursday, but the
Haitian government said it was recovering its ability to
The catastrophic Jan. 12 quake, which may have killed up to
300,000 people in the impoverished Caribbean country, reduced
revenue in January to just 10 percent of expected totals.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, March 4 (Reuters) – The earthquake that devastated Haiti in January also undercut the government’s ability to collect revenue, but the state is fast recovering its capacity, the country’s deputy finance minister said on Thursday.
By the end of March, the impoverished Caribbean country’s government expects its revenue to have bounced back to around 60 percent of its pre-quake levels and that figure could rise to 80 percent by the end of June.
That compares with the dire situation immediately following the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people. In that month, the government collected just 10 percent of expected revenue totals.
Balancing the budget is a different matter since the government needs to rebuild a huge amount of destroyed infrastructure, Deputy Finance Minister Sylvain Lafalaise said in an interview with Reuters.
An official committee, which is assessing those needs and the deficit it will generate, will produce a provisional report by the end of the month, he said, adding that discussions on the subject were "sensitive."
"We have to figure out with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) what our level of deficit will be and then … take a decision" on a new budget, said Lafalaise, a career civil servant.
The international community, which already provides most of the country’s investment budget, is due to meet in New York at the end of March to decide on levels of reconstruction funding for the country.
One question it will likely face is what to do about the country’s debt.
Haiti’s budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year starting last October stood at 78.8 billion gourdes ($1.97 billion), of which 34.9 billion gourdes came from domestic revenues and 41.9 billion came in the form of donations from the international community. Other sources make up the difference.
Of the internal revenue, 23.8 billion gourdes derives from customs alone, Lafalaise said, citing statistics in a paper that would form part of discussions with the IMF taking place on Thursday.
The customs revenue has continued to flow more or less intact since the quake, he said.
But the main reason why revenue collection is recovering fast in a country still reeling from the quake’s impact has to do with the "particular nature of the Haitian situation," he added.
Almost 70 percent of the country’s revenue comes from just 500 companies. Of those, four telecom companies, including Digicel and Voila, account for 25 percent of the revenue and banks constitute roughly 20 percent, said Jacques Nelson, a ministry cabinet director.
Haiti’s tobacco industry is the next largest contributor.
"The big companies are still open and in the days after the quake we went looking for them," Lafalaise said, adding that the department has a special unit that deals with those companies.
TAKING BACK THE REINS
Lafalaise gave an account of the Finance Ministry at odds with the view that the Haitian government has been reduced to a state of helplessness by the earthquake.
"For a few days after the quake, everything stopped but by (Jan.) 16th, we took back the reins of the ministry," said Lafalaise.
The Finance Ministry building still stands, but is unusable. As a result, its main departments that include those that control taxes, customs, motor vehicle licensing and run the port, are now scattered across the city.
An early decision was made to continue to pay the country’s roughly 55,000 civil servants even if their places of work had been destroyed. That outlay represents around half of all government spending.
One concern facing donors is that reconstruction funds given directly to the government could be spirited away through mismanagement or corruption.
But the ministry could reduce its dependence on aid if it could end its reliance on declarations of income by companies and individuals and establish a proper system of tax oversight, said Nelson.
"We can’t compare what a company declares as its income with what it actually receives," Nelson said, adding: "If we could do that, we could double our revenue. ($U.S. 1=40 Haitian gourdes)
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Haiti’s prime minister demanded more information on Wednesday about foreign aid pouring into the earthquake-stricken country and urged that his government not be sidelined in reconstruction efforts.
The issue is sensitive for international donors who considered corruption a major problem before a January 12 quake that killed as many as 300,000 people, according to government estimates.