The earthquake in Haiti is a tragedy beyond comprehension. It has caused immeasurable human suffering, shattering families, communities and hopes.
Among the many thousands who have lost their lives are good friends and close colleagues from the United Nations. I mourn their loss and all those who died in this disaster.
Fortunately, humanitarian aid, provided by countries from all across the globe and coordinated by the UN, is finally beginning to reach those in need. The immediate priority will, for some time, remain the provision of medical care, water, food and shelter.
But we must also plan now for the longer-term issues of recovery and reconstruction. We must not waste this opportunity, however tragic, to get things right in Haiti.
The challenge is to do this in a way that is dignified, provides hope, creates opportunities, and builds the capacity of Haitian authorities.
But there is a deeper, more basic, point to make. It should not take a tragedy on this scale to focus on an unacceptable reality that perhaps as many as a billion of our fellow humans live in fragile states.
Their plight is an affront to human dignity and will increasingly have consequences for the security and prosperity of us all.
There is no single definition of a fragile state, nor any consensus on how many of them there are. What is important is that the absence of effective state institutions and reliable governance mechanisms makes their populations highly susceptible both to domestic and external shocks, be they climatic, disease-related, economic or political.
Political instability, wide-spread poverty, and the absence of the rule of law and economic opportunity don’t just increase people’s vulnerability to natural disasters.
They create conditions in which terrorism, piracy, corruption and organized crime can thrive and enable these problems to be exported across their borders. In today’s interconnected world, countering such trends is in everyone’s interest.
Responding to today’s fragile states must go hand in hand with anticipating tomorrow’s. The predictors are well-known and include economic contraction, abuse of human rights, unaddressed political grievances, and environmental degradation, including from climate change. These feed off each other and make an ugly brew.
All members of the international community, particularly donor countries, have a collective responsibility to engage with and repair fragile states, and to prevent now stable countries from joining their ranks.
More effort and urgency is needed to support the development of effective institutions, both local and national.
This includes building and supporting their capacity to provide security, administer justice, and deliver basic services including health, education, energy and communication.
We have to be prepared to engage for the long-term, even as world attention moves on – possibly, alas, to the next disaster.
This means bridging the gap, one more rooted in institutional mandates than realities on the ground, between emergency assistance and long-term development.
It means empowering national actors, state and civil society, to articulate and achieve their social, economic and political objectives.
We cannot, of course, prevent natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti. But we can help fragile states and their populations to overcome the chronic vulnerabilities caused by underdevelopment and long-term neglect.
For this we need to be bold. We need to think long-term. And we need to act together.
We need to show the same courage and sustained commitment in our efforts to support fragile states overcome their problems. If we do, the prize will not simply be a better life for a billion of our fellow human beings, but more security and prosperity for all of us.
The recent UN Security Council Resolution on Haiti, the promising talk of a donor conference as well as the long-term initiative that former US President Bill Clinton is expected to launch at next week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, indicate that in the case of Haiti we may have learned some lessons.
But we must not stop here. There are many other states, including Afghanistan and Somalia that require concerted and sustained help—and now, not merely when the next disaster strikes.
Kofi Annan is the former Secretary- General of the United Nations