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Haiti's Iron Market: A symbolic rebirth

Although it could very well get lost in the sea of news about the Tucson shooting rampage, today is the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, a noteworthy anniversary not for how much has been accomplished, but for how much sadly remains the same. A year later, just 5 percent of the rubble has been removed. Nearly a million people still live in makeshift refugee camps.

This is not a place, to put it mildly, where leadership has been on display. A "chaotic" presidential election, as a Wall Street Journal story called it, was held in December in the country, but the results are still not known. Charities working in the country have been completely uncoordinated, and much of the promised international aid has yet to appear. The country's government, which has a history of corruption, is unable to hold the purse strings of the money that is flowing in, leaving it incapable of controlling progress within its own borders.

But while hope is in short supply in this disaster-ravaged island, there are a few small--and most notably, symbolic--examples of leaders stepping forward amid the chaos. One of the most compelling in the recent anniversary coverage is the unlikely story of Denis O'Brien, an Irish billionaire who has put $12 million of his own money into rebuilding the Iron Market, a 19th-century bazaar in Port-au-Prince that was once home to thousands of local merchants selling everything from fresh herbs to turtles and dried starfish.

O'Brien certainly has self interest in seeing Haiti rebuild. His Caribbean mobile phone company, Digicel, dominates the Haitian market, and a rebirth of commerce is agreed to be the only way the country has any chance at recovery. Rebuilding the Iron Market helps reinstate livelihoods for people who do not have other ways to make an income. These are O'Brien's potential customers, of course: "As a company, we're more aligned to the masses than to the elites," he told The New York Times.

Still, O'Brien appears to hold the market's lasting success as a priority. Not only did he pay to have the market rebuilt, but he has also agreed to help coordinate its management for the next 50 years, the Times reports. He remained intimately involved in the rebuilding, held focus-group talks with vendors and pushed the architectural, engineering and construction teams to finish the project by December, just before the one-year anniversary--a seemingly impossible goal.

And that, in the end, is likely to be even more important than the economic lift from the Iron Market's reopening (which, self interested or not, is in fact a critical benefit). The first bright spot amid all the rubble is not the president's palace, but a place of commerce for common people. It is known to the masses, shopped by the masses--a historic icon that is central to a city that has known decades of suffering.

Symbolism plays a huge role in leadership, and O'Brien's investment in the Iron Market's reopening within a year of the tragedy is an example of its power. Symbolic gestures motivate people in any situation, but especially in a place where the scale of human misery is as tremendous as it is in Port-au-Prince. And in Haiti, where so little hope is left, it may be one of the only remaining things that works.

Related content:

Why it's so hard to rebuild Haiti

Haiti's viral volunteers: How social media is changing the face of crisis response

Crowdsourcing leadership in Haiti

By Jena McGregor

 |  January 12, 2011; 9:32 AM ET |  Category:  Change management , Crisis leadership , Foreign Affairs , Government leadership , Nonprofit leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Sheriff Dupnik, first on rhetoric now on gun control: Speaking his mind or overstepping his bounds? | Next: Obama and Palin: Two responses at a time of crisis

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Posted by: zhengee01 | January 13, 2011 1:19 AM

How wonderful to hear of the rebirth of the marche fer. Some of my fondest memories of Port au Prince are o haggling in its stalls.

Posted by: lmmbham | January 12, 2011 12:18 PM

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