The Jan. 12 earthquake that hit Haiti is the largest natural disaster in the Western Hemisphere. A little more than 100 days later, the death toll has exceeded 300,000 people. Damage is estimated at $11 billion U.S. Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have indicated that Canada will step up its efforts to support Haitian relief and reconstruction.

In this paper and elsewhere, some academics have questioned the wisdom of this, as that of a "Marshall Plan" for Haiti. They argue that foreign countries should be more parsimonious in their aid to Haiti, that they should control it more, should preferably not work with the Haitian government, and if certain unspecified goals are not met, pull out.

But the whole purpose of international co-operation is to help those who need it most. If not Haiti, who? If not now, when?

Haiti's tragedy is shaped by its history, as the place of the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas, and of the first black republic. It has been paying in blood and coin for it since.

The fragile nature of the Haitian state after two centuries of existence, and the fraught nature of Haiti's social relations, pace its vibrant and highly creative culture and civil society, cannot be explained away in a vacuum, or simply attributed to the faults of the Haitian leadership. Many fragile states trace part of their difficulties to their recent colonial past. Haiti's problem is the opposite. It was right before its time -- both in cutting colonial chains and in abolishing slavery.

After its independence in 1804, Haiti spent much of the next 80 years paying compensation to France, some $22 billion U.S. in today's currency, to make up for the income lost from the huge sugar estates held by French slaveholders. Adding insult to injury, the United States imposed a trade embargo, afraid of the example trading with a black republic could set to its own slave population.

The effects were comparable to those of the U.S. embargo on Cuba today -- devastating. The United States then invaded and occupied Haiti for close to 20 years -- from 1915 to 1934. Adding to this tragic legacy of bitter international race relations, Haiti fell under a harsh dictatorship, also abetted by Washington, that of the Duvaliers, from 1957 to 1986. Since the fall of Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier in 1986, Haiti has gone through a difficult transition to democracy. In 1987 it gave itself a new constitution, the country's 22nd.

The 2006 elections won by current President René Préval were the first held with fully accredited voter registration rolls and proper voter IDs, something made possible by international co-operation, including Canada's. Since then, Haiti has enjoyed unprecedented stability.

In 2009, economic growth was 2.4 per cent, one of only two countries in the Americas with positive growth. The dissolution of the coup-prone Haitian Armed Forces (34 coups have taken place in Haiti) in 1995 has helped. The Haitian National Police (HNP) is being built up. Although still made up only of 8,000 out of a targeted 14,000 (77 police officers died in the earthquake), it has been gaining people's trust, and security has improved. A key challenge is to shore up the institutions of the Haitian state, not ignore them.

What makes the Haitian tragedy especially poignant is that, despite the four fierce hurricanes and tropical storms in 2008, in late 2009 things were starting to fall into place. New international hotels were being built. Potential investors and businessmen from abroad and from the Haitian diaspora were all over the place, looking at the many opportunities the country (a scarce one hour away from Miami) offers.

Helping Haiti, despite the myriad challenges this entails, is not an option. It is what has to be done. At a key transit point for the drug trade from South to North America, the last thing the hemisphere needs is another Somalia, this time in the middle of the Caribbean. Haiti's tragic condition is not of its own making alone, but the product of a history in which some of the Big Powers have had much to say. In the righting of these wrongs, which also entails the building of a new Haiti, Canada should continue to take a lead.

Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a Distinguished Fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). His latest book (with Andrew F. Cooper), Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization, is published by United Nations University Press.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.