As international aid pours in to provide relief from the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti, development workers and NGO professionals are beginning to fear what will happen once the media spotlight leaves the small island nation. But there is one person who has enough political clout and global recognition to ensure that doesn't happen: Michelle Obama.
The first lady may seem like a strange choice for the new face of Haiti. After all, Wyclef Jean, the most visible Haitian-born celebrity, has adopted Haiti as his cause for years now. His plans for the Yéle Center included a sprawling educational complex with a focus on using music, sports and the arts to strengthen the Haitian community. Since news of the tragedy broke, Jean flew directly to Haiti where he helped to clear bodies from the streets of Port-au-Prince. (He’s also had to defend charges that his foundation misused donations.) In addition to Jean, the Clintons have both expressed support for Haiti using the might of their platforms. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Haiti on Sunday to survey the progress of the relief effort. President Obama tapped former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to help with humanitarian aid.
But Michelle Obama may be Haiti’s best bet. Though she lacks formal experience with Haiti and a strong foreign policy background, her institutional and organizational skills, coupled with her ability to get to the heart of an issue keeps her under consideration. With a characteristically short and to the point public service announcement, Michelle Obama stared at America and asked the people for their help. The message was devoid of any and all platitudes—no referencing her own personal organizations or her long history with Haiti, just the facts, the need, and where to donate. Her PSA showed the type of singular focus that Haiti desperately needs.
Interestingly, Mrs. Obama has been criticized for "lacking focus" in her advocacy endeavors. Robin Givhan, writing for the Washington Post, took Obama to task for failing to embrace and champion one specific cause in her first year as first lady. Obama accomplished all of her personal goals during her short time in office—she put a major focus on making sure her daughters, Sasha and Malia, were adjusting well to the new school and new home, and she wanted to make the White House open to a variety of people. Also, from Obama's public actions, it is clear the issues of food and health are near and dear to her heart.
Her focus on health food and proper nutrition would be a welcome addition to Haiti's issues plate, considering its long struggles with feeding its growing populace. In 2008, protests against rising food costs turned into riots as people began to fight for their share of a shrinking pool of resources. Those who couldn't afford to eat survived on "cookies" made out of yellow mud, water and shortening.
Considering Michelle Obama spent a few years managing parts of the University of Chicago Hospitals, much of her expertise could be applied to the situation on the ground. Her knack for recruiting volunteers and working within historically marginalized communities to provide sustainable solutions to larger problems would be welcome in the process of rebuilding Haiti’s infrastructure.
But her largest asset may very well be her fresh perspective. Michelle Obama doesn’t shy away from pointed discussions about communities and families. But it’s rooted in common sense and personal experience, as opposed to the policy-based backgrounds of the economists and wonks who purport to know what is the best course for Haiti to take in the aftermath of the disaster.
What Haiti needs now is someone who will be invested in the country and possesses both compassion and follow-through.
Someone without an established agenda.
Latoya Peterson is editor of Racialicious.
Latoya Peterson is a hip-hop feminist, anti-racist activist and deputy editor of Fusion’s Voices section, opining on pop culture, news, video games and everything that makes life worth living.