On 17 October parliamentarians met to launch a new All Party Parliamentary Group for Haiti. Lord Leslie Griffiths of Burry Port, who has close personal ties to Haiti, will chair the newly re-established APPG. He told Esther Trewinnard why it’s an important step forward for him personally and what he hopes the APPG will be able to contribute to reconstruction efforts in Haiti.
Esther Trewinnard: What is the significance of setting up this APPG?
Lord Griffiths: I’ve been making the case for Haiti for over 40 years. This is the first chance that it has been possible to raise the case of Haiti in the British Parliament – the very same British Parliament that 200 years ago argued for an end to the slave trade.
Now is a critical moment. The Haitian Prime Minister has been elected and the Cabinet approved, so it’s the right time to set up the APPG.
ET: What do you hope to achieve through the APPG for Haiti?
LG: The level of information people in the UK have about Haiti is woeful – even among the ruling classes. We aim to raise the bar in terms of their understanding and maintain public interest in Haiti.
ET: Why Haiti? What’s your personal connection?
LG: I’m a Methodist Minister. When I was first ordained Ministers were being given the opportunity of serving overseas. My wife and I agreed that we would go anywhere we were sent! And because I spoke French we were sent to Haiti. At the time I didn’t know anything about the country - we had to look it up on the map! I spent 10 years in Haiti, 3 in Port-au-Prince and 7 in other more rural areas. My children were born in Haiti so it is a very special place for the whole family. I still have very close connections to Haiti and travel there frequently.
ET: Did you learn to speak Creole while you were living in Haiti?
LG: Oh yes, I speak Creole. I recently had to give a sermon in Creole and it had been a while since I had done any public speaking in Creole, so I was a little nervous – but it all came right back. Quite often I think in creole – or even dream in Creole!
ET: Why do you feel it is important to maintain public interest in Haiti?
LG: As is the case in any place that has suffered a disaster, recovery will take a long time. I don’t like to compare disasters – that’s somehow quite distasteful - but the scale of the disaster in Haiti far exceeds other disasters because the capital city, Port-au-Prince, was so completely destroyed.
Look at the example of the city of Dresden [a German city that was destroyed by a bombing raid carried out by the Allied Forces towards the end of WWII]. Dresden is only just recovering and that’s more than 65 years on.
Haiti has no money of its own and so it will rely on outside funding for the reconstruction process – it is likely to be 20-30 years before Port-au-Prince is restored. So to maintain funding, we must maintain public interest.
There are no excuses now. Previously, the money pledged to Haiti could not be released because there was no government to receive it. Haiti has now formed a government. So we can put pressure on the European Union to release the money that was promised.
We need to keep the money flowing – in the long term – so that there is an opportunity to reconstruct Haiti and rebuild it so it can be even better than before. The country needs to be allowed to breath and for its people to have freedom of movement.
The next 5-10 years are pivotal and could determine the course of Haiti’s future. Hopefully we will be able to look back at the earthquake in retrospect and see that it signalled an opportunity to change things in Haiti.
ET: What about rebuilding Haiti’s cultural and architectural heritage? Would you consider these to be priorities for reconstruction efforts?
LG: You’re right to ask about culture and architecture. Cultural heritage and ecology are very relevant, as are green energy options such as solar power. That’s why we are involved with John McAslan, the architect that rebuilt the Iron Market in Haiti.
ET: Were you confident that enough parliamentarians would sign up to the APPG?
LG: I was the vice-chair on the APPG for Cambodia with far fewer members! That said to achieve our goals we do need programmes that will attract people to it.
ET: What relationship do you envisage UK MPs and Peers having with Haitian government officials?
LG: As Haiti tries to establish itself along democratic lines, we hope to help and be collaborators and partners in that process. We don’t want to tell Haitian parliamentarians how to do it – but we want to support them. Parliament has to function and has to hold government to account.
For a while now, I’ve dreamed a dream of a trilateral relationship between Domincan Republic, the UK and Haiti. The UK has a bilateral relationship with the Dominican Republic already. Haiti’s relationship with the Domincan Republic is key to the future prosperity of both countries. It’s in the Dominican Republic’s interests to solve Haiti’s problems.
At a recent meeting in the Dominican Republic, I voiced this vision for a trilateral relationship and found that two of the Dominicans at the meetings, like me, had Haitian links. I found that the idea has a lot of energy.
ET: So what plans do you have to start with?
LG: We are organising a visit for Parliamentarians to visit Haiti towards the end of the year and we will be holding a debate in January around the time of the anniversary of the earthquake.
We were very concerned by the lack of coordination among NGOs following the earthquake. In response the Haiti Advocacy Platform Ireland/UK was set up which offers a forum through which NGOs can coordinate their responses. We also have the Roundtable for Dominican Republic and Haiti that brings together businesses, investors, NGOs, and other stakeholders. The APPG, the third part of our strategy to support Haiti, will be a space for parliamentarians to discuss Haiti.
Photo: Lord Griffiths of Burry Port and Lizzette Robleto-Gonzalez (photo © Gabrielle Nagle/Progressio)