PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean began a visit to her native Haiti with the country reeling from a succession of natural disasters that have intensified an already painful food crisis.
A string of hurricanes has wiped away crops in a country where 40 per cent of children already suffer from severe or moderate stunting because of malnutrition.
Now the United Nations World Food Programme warns that it could run out of supplies for Haiti by March, as international donations have fallen far short of their targets.
Jean says the problems plaguing her native country are well known: high food prices, lack of clean water and electricity, deforestation and the resulting soil erosion and mudslides, gang violence and political instability.
But upon arriving for a four-day visit she said it’s time to move from chronicling the litany of woes to taking steps to address them.
“I believe the time for assessments (of Haiti’s problems) has passed,” Jean said as she arrived Thursday with her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond.
“Now is the time for action.”
Already the poorest country in the Americas, Haiti saw its moribund economy shrink by a staggering 15 per cent in a year when it was battered by three hurricanes and a tropical storm.
Jean’s trip comes at the request of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government has increased existing Canadian aid commitments for Haiti to $555 million over five years.
Haiti is Canada’s second-largest development recipient in the world, after Afghanistan.
Quebec’s power utility is also spending $4.9 million on an electricity project in the southern region, where Jean was born.
Jean is scheduled to visit a hurricane disaster-response site, agriculture programs and a police training centre.
The Canadian-funded projects are aimed at addressing a vicious circle of overlapping problems.
For example, a lack of electricity has led to the widespread deforestation of a once-lush tropical paradise, as people chop trees for wood to cook meals.
With large swaths of the verdant land reduced to desert-like patches, Haiti has suffered soil erosion and mudslides that further complicate efforts to grow food and ward off natural disaster.
Such rampant poverty has also fuelled social unrest and political tensions.
“Numerous assessments have been made (about Haiti),” Jean said.
“They have been made for decades. I believe we’re well aware of the state of affairs, the realities, the stakes, the challenges.
“But I think we’re all in agreement that it’s really time to move toward concrete action, to see how we can consolidate what has already been done, but to push even farther.”
Jean was welcomed at the airport by a brass band and Haitian President Rene Preval, who thanked Canada for its efforts in his country.
It is the Governor General’s second official visit to the country. She also attended Preval’s 2006 inauguration ceremony.
Jean took several questions from local and Canadian media, but sidestepped a query about the pivotal role she played in Canada’s recent political history.
When asked about her decision to allow Harper to shut down Parliament in December – a move that likely saved his government – she said it wasn’t the time to discuss the matter.
As per constitutional tradition, the Governor General has not commented on her private meeting with Harper last month, nor has she spoken publicly about her decision to allow prorogation.
“My priority right now is really to address the Haitian people on behalf of Canada, and to concentrate on the mission here,” she said.