BEFORE THE RAINS ravaged towns in southern Haiti, killing 1,300, this impoverished nation faced a dire situation. Haitians were struggling to feed their families in a country torn by political strife and wracked by sectarian violence. The ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February had not improved everyday life for most Haitians, and the flooding only exacerbated conditions there. Emergency relief efforts have been forthcoming, but the problems plaguing Haiti demand a greater response from the international community.
Despite the presence of a U.S.-led security force in Haiti, rebel forces and partisan militias still control sectors of the island nation. There has been no attempt to disarm them, and the resulting lack of security has made it difficult for humanitarian agencies to carry out their work in areas where clean water, electricity and food supplies are limited.
This week, U.N. peacekeepers will begin taking over the security duties. Their first priority should be to disarm the rogue militias and rebel groups, whose presence contributes to a sense of lawlessness in the country and fears of human rights abuses against Aristide supporters. Disarming the paramilitaries would be a first step toward returning power to Haiti's national police force, which is in a shambles. The United States and France should take the lead in training and reforming the Haitian police.
On the humanitarian side, the price of rice has gone beyond the reach of most Haitians, leaving many to resort to mud-and-grass biscuits to satisfy their hunger. The recent flooding has left thousands homeless and destroyed acres of farm crops. That makes the need for foreign aid even greater than it was. But international donors have been slow in responding to the general crisis in Haiti. Donor countries are now assessing Haiti's needs in preparation for a July meeting. But they should seek to expedite aid dollars to Haiti before the meeting and forward any new money to relief agencies, which have the expertise and infrastructure to respond quickly.
Before the floods, Haiti's interim government was preoccupied with sorting out the financial problems left by the Aristide administration. That difficult job remains. But the government also should investigate the increases in basic food costs in Haiti to ensure that an affordable source of food is available for its 8 million people.
By the end of this month, U.S. forces will have left Haiti. The Bush administration must maintain its commitment to help restore a democratically elected government there, all the while remembering that democracy won't flourish if Haitians can't feed their families, fear for their safety and die of curable diseases.