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HAITI: Artists Join UN to Rebuild Cultural Life

A. D. McKenzie

PARIS, Mar 24 2010 (IPS) - As international donors prepare to meet at the United Nations headquarters in New York to discuss ways to rebuild Haiti, after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, the country’s artistic community has been mobilising to make culture a key aspect of reconstruction.

Exhibition on Haiti at UNESCO Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

Exhibition on Haiti at UNESCO Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

Led by Haiti’s minister for culture and communication, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn-Lassègue, writers, artists and musicians gathered in Paris this week at the U.N.’s cultural agency, UNESCO, to map out medium- and long-term strategies for “recreating” the Caribbean nation.

“Culture is at the basis of our development,” Jocelyn-Lassègue told participants Wednesday at a forum entitled ‘Rebuilding the social, cultural and intellectual fabric of Haiti’.

“For us, culture is not a luxury, not an accessory,” she added. “It is through culture and by culture that we’ll be able to develop certain aspects of our society.”

She told IPS in an interview that the UNESCO forum, which included internationally known artists such as African writer Wole Soyinka, was necessary to “keep Haiti on the agenda”, as the world’s attention shifts in the aftermath of the disaster.

She said the agency was helping to re-focus attention on Haiti’s continuing plight and working to find international partners to help in reconstruction.

Some of these partners are expected to announce further plans for action at the International Donors’ Conference on Mar. 31 in New York. Organisers of a preparatory meeting held last week in the Dominican Republic have already declared that 3.8 billion US dollars over 18 months will be provided in assistance.

Jocelyn-Lassègue, whose chief of staff was killed as he sat next to her when her office collapsed in the earthquake, has been leading a crusade to keep Haiti in the world’s consciousness. She said that recent flooding has added to the country’s woes.

Villages in the south have been inundated by seasonal rains, even as Haitians try to come to terms with the losses from the earthquake. The minister told IPS that she herself had lost 58 relatives and friends, among the estimated 222,000 people killed in the disaster.

“Everyone has been touched, and our patrimony, material and immaterial, has been all but destroyed,” she said.

UNESCO’s director-general Irina Bokova visited Haiti earlier this month to see the situation first-hand, and Wednesday she stressed that the agency was committed to helping Haiti recover.

“Haiti is a test for humanity,” Bokova said. “The Haitian people are masters of their own destiny. But there are moments when one needs help and solidarity, to regain strength and hope, and Jan. 12 was one of those moments’’.

Expressing sadness at the immense loss of life, she said that people around the world “all carried lasting images of the Cathedral of Port-au-Prince pulverised, of libraries and museums destroyed, of schools torn apart.”

In the wake of the destruction, Bokova said UNESCO was focusing on education as well as the preservation of Haiti’s unique cultural legacy, which is “now threatened by vandalism, looting and illicit art trafficking”.

The agency has taken steps to establish an International Coordination Committee for Haitian culture to “bring together all the organisations concerned with the rehabilitation of the country’s culture”. This will be directed by the Haitian government, she said.

To highlight Haiti’s cultural contributions, UNESCO is also hosting two exhibitions at its headquarters here – one on Haitian art, and the other showing photographs of Haiti before and after the earthquake.

In addition, Bokova has named the Haitian playwright, artist and musician Frankétienne as UNESCO ‘Artist for peace’, to help promote culture worldwide. Accepting the honour before a packed audience Wednesday, the white-haired playwright burst into a song. He said he would carry out UNESCO’s work “conscientiously”.

Some observers have expressed surprise at the speed with which UNESCO, long considered an almost irrelevant U.N. bureau, has seized the initiative to help provide assistance. But Haitian representatives credit Bokova, who took over the agency’s leadership last October, for the new dynamism.

“It seems women do things differently and are more pragmatic,” an official told IPS.

Davidson Hepburn, the Bahamas’ ambassador to UNESCO and president of the agency’s general conference, said that the disaster had presented UNESCO with an unusual opportunity to take the lead in education, as “macabre as that may sound”.

He said the agency was focusing on this sector, among other areas of assistance, because “schools and universities matter”. The earthquake destroyed hundreds of schools, and killed more than a thousand teachers, according to Haitian officials.

Many children in the capital Port-au-Prince still have no formal classes, and the city’s three universities are in ruins.

France this week announced that it would send 30,000 books to the island and help in setting up a digital library. The French government is also implementing residence programmes for Haitian artists, and will dispatch experts to repair damaged works of art in Haiti itself, officials said.

French minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, plans to go to Haiti in the coming weeks, following a visit by President Nicolas Sarkozy in February – the first by a French leader since the country gained its independence from France in 1804. Some black French associations have been calling on France to repay Haiti the crippling sum it demanded in reparations after the Caribbean country had the world’s first successful slave revolt. But Jocelyn-Lassègue said her country had moved beyond these historical disputes.

“We’re no longer there,” she told IPS. “France is with us now.”

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