Roughly three weeks after Haiti’s President Michel Martelly did not show up for a scheduled speech at the University’s World Leaders Forum, Earth Institute officials say Columbia’s relationship with Haiti remains as strong as ever.
The Earth Institute started collaborating with the Haitian government to improve the country’s social and environmental conditions more than two years ago, and added some initiatives after the devastating earthquake that rocked the small island nation in January 2010.
Those programs are much more significant than Martelly’s absence, said Alex Fischer, a program manager for the Earth Institute who was in Haiti when interviewed for this story.
“We still have a strong relationship with the government,” Fischer said. “Martelly sending his foreign minister to the conference still reflects interest and commitment to participating in the dialogue with Columbia.”
Foreign minister-designate Daniel Supplice and popular Haitian hip hop artist Wyclef Jean both spoke in place of Martelly at the WLF event. Economics professor Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute, facilitated a question-and-answer session and spoke to the audience about Columbia’s programs to aid Haiti.
Still, some students who attended said they were disappointed when University President Lee Bollinger announced that Martelly could not attend. Martelly spoke at York College several hours after he had been scheduled to speak at Columbia.
“I was there hoping to see Martelly speak. I’m not sure what happened because President Bollinger was very ambiguous,” Alison Desir, CC ’07, GSAS ’11, said. “He [Martelly] was able to speak at York College in Queens, which has a very large Haitian population. So I can speculate that that was a more important visit for him to make.”
The Earth Institute’s current work in Haiti includes the Center for International Earth Science Information Network's implementation o the Haiti Regeneration Initiative, which seeks to decrease poverty and prepare Haiti for future natural disasters.
“The relationship between Columbia and Haiti is strong and multifaceted,” said geoscience professor Marc Levy, CIESIN’s deputy director.
Levy’s team, along with the United Nations and other Haitian nongovernmental organizations, is working to restore ecosystems and improve resource management in the southwest portion of Haiti.
“We deliberately chose a region in the country to develop long-term, sustainable relationships to reverse the degradation of the country,” Levy said. “We remain committed to that and regularly get people asking us to share insights.”
Levy said that he is optimistic about the program’s future.
“The work ... was being planned in 2008 and has been marching on very steadily,” he said.
Fischer is working on the Earth Institute’s Côte Sud Initiative, a long-term project to eliminate poverty and environmental degradation in the western portion of Haiti’s Southern Department.
“I can tell you that the vision of our project is a 20-year vision,” Fischer said. “To see the level of change that you’re looking for, you need involvement and commitment over time.”
Barnard human rights professor J. Paul Martin, who runs a discussion group about Haitian issues, agreed that Martelly’s absence didn’t mean much.
“In some respects, he probably had other options and didn’t expect much to come from his visit to the University,” he said.