The Haitian people themselves have shown remarkable fortitude in the face of the disaster

WHEN much of Haiti was quite literally smashed to pieces and lives were shattered irrevocably, hope also seemed to have been buried in the rubble. Surveying the aftermath of the earthquake – the mountains of debris and the crushed bodies that lay half-buried beneath it – few could not have been reduced to despair.

Standing in what remained of the pitiful streets of Port-au-Prince, my heart also sank as I wondered: "with the international community's focus elsewhere, trapped in the teeth of a financial hurricane, who is likely to heed the distress calls of some of the poorest people on our planet?"

I got my answer when I visited the city again recently. Without wishing to make light of the massive task that lies ahead in picking through the wreckage and rebuilding this broken country, I was heartened and inspired by what I saw.

It must be said that the cornerstone for a new future was put in place by the $9 billion in aid pledged by world leaders to help these stricken people. The size of this pledge was unprecedented. It meant that there were now real prospects and possibilities for progress where before there was only chaos and despondency.

Returning to Port-au-Prince, I was heartened at how much progress has been made. The US and the UN now appear to be more seriously committed to Haiti. Hopefully this will extend to rebuilding the country, but there is as yet no clear indication of that.

Control over the entire operation still needs to be much more centralised, but things have improved markedly since the early days. In particular, the World Food Programme (a subsidiary of the UN) has done a sterling job, managing to feed over 3.5 million people in a few months.

A host of experienced NGOs (Irish among them) have also done much to ease the pain and suffering in Haiti. One million people have been provided with shelter, 1.5 million now have access to potable water from newly-installed fixed water points, and 500,000 have been vaccinated against common illnesses.

Taken together, it all amounts to a considerable feat, given the scale and nature of the tragedy. In fact, in my experience, it is perhaps the most impressive short-term response ever by the international community to a major humanitarian emergency.

One can only properly judge the current Haiti situation against the enormity of the task that confronted the rescuers and aid workers when they first arrived. Port-au-Prince and its entire vital infrastructure were almost completely destroyed. Approximately 300,000 people had been killed, countless numbers seriously injured (there are 40,000 amputees), and another 1.3 million left homeless. The aid workers were faced with a tragedy of monumental proportions.

The immediate priority was to keep survivors alive by getting medical assistance, food and water to them. For health reasons, bodies had to be recovered from the rubble, and sanitation facilities and shelter provided for the hundreds of thousands of homeless people living in makeshift tented villages around the city.

Goal has been involved in the aid and rescue response from the outset. In just over two months, on behalf of the WFP, we distributed food to almost 500,000 people, possibly the biggest single operation in the history of the organisation. We have provided medical aid, water, sanitation facilities and emergency shelter to countless thousands of others.

The immediate concerns of the Haitian people have now largely been addressed, and the next phase of the operation is poised to begin: the building of transitional shelters. Goal will be heavily involved in this aspect of the Haiti relief programme, having agreed an $11 million contract with USAid to build 4,000 transitional dwellings and several hundred sanitation and latrine blocks. Goal has experience in this, having previously delivered major rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes for the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

The transitional homes are vital in Port-au-Prince and in the countryside, given the major health and safety hazards posed by the coming rainy season. They are designed to last a year or so, to allow time for the building of more permanent structures.

There still remains, of course, much to be done in Haiti – hospitals, clinics, houses, offices and schools, for example, need to be completely restored – but at least things are now moving steadily in the right direction.

The Haitian people themselves have shown remarkable fortitude in the face of the disaster. Street markets are up and running again, and many local people have found employment with aid agencies (including Goal), mainly in clearing rubble from the streets and main thoroughfares. They are beginning to have faith in the future again. We cannot let them down.

If the international community is genuinely committed to rebuilding Haiti – and I hope that it is – then it is certainly possible. The opportunity is there. Finances are not a problem, with the billions already pledged. (Our own government, reflecting the enormous generosity of the Irish people, has pledged an additional €9 million to Haiti.) Corruption must be guarded against, of course, and stamped upon wherever it arises.

Neither is security a major issue according to senior UN and US officials, who assured me that the situation is under control. They are fully confident that the UN peacekeepers can maintain law and order. I still have concerns about organised criminal gangs, but those types of people cannot be allowed to halt progress.

There are no insurmountable or even major logistical obstacles to the rebuilding of Haiti. Political interference is not a consideration, and it should not be allowed to become one.

What Haiti needs is a commitment from the UN that it will stay and finish the job; that it will rebuild the country completely. Until such an assurance is forthcoming, the future will remain unclear.

All things considered, though, there is reason to be cautiously upbeat, which is saying something in the aftermath of such a devastating catastrophe.

John O'Shea is chief executive of Goal