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Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said Monday that Haiti has the best chance in decades to escape poverty and political upheaval and he will seek in his new job as U.N. special envoy to improve life for the estimated 9 million Haitians.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and was in the throes of a food crisis and political deadlock when four tropical storms battered it last fall, killing some 800 people and doing $1 billion in damage. Hunger worsened, poverty deepened and hard-won stability threatened to come apart five years after a bloody rebellion.

Clinton said he will try to do in Haiti what the U.N. attempted to do when he was the top U.N. envoy promoting recovery from the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — “to leave things better than they were before the natural disasters.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who appointed Clinton to the US$1-a-year post on May 19, told a news conference that “no one is better placed” than the former U.S. president to help Haiti’s president and prime minister promote their new economic development program and to help ensure that governments deliver on the US$335 million they pledged in April for Haiti’s recovery.

“Haiti is at a turning point,” Ban said. “It has a real chance for stability and potential prosperity. … And we wanted to send a message to the international community: Haiti needs and deserves our help.”

Sitting beside the secretary-general, Clinton said that even after the devastation caused by last year’s storms “I think Haiti … has the best chance to escape the darker aspects of its history in the 35 years I have been going there.”

He said this was because of the leadership of President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis, the “good job” done by U.N. peacekeepers and international police in improving security, U.S. legislation passed last year giving Haitian products “extraordinary access” to U.S. markets, Ban’s interest, and the success of the donors conference.

Clinton said he will follow the “very impressive program” produced by the Haitian government — which is similar to one commissioned by the U.N. but focuses more on immediate needs — and work to generate new jobs and improve the availability of basic services.

Schools, hospitals, housing, public facilities, roads and infrastructure will be “built back better” and improvements will be made to prevent and mitigate future disasters and speed recovery, he said.

Clinton said he will also encourage international investment, make Haiti a more attractive prospect including by improving power supplies, accelerate efforts to promote clean energy, encourage donors to honor their commitments, and put the spotlight on “both the pain and the promise of Haiti” and its economic opportunities.

“I will be accountable in this work to the secretary-general and the United Nations, and to the people of Haiti and their governmental leaders,” Clinton said.

He said he had read speculation in the Haitian press that his job “was somehow an imperialist plot to take over Haiti.”

“All I want to do is help the Haitians take over control of their own destiny,” Clinton stressed. “That’s all I have ever wanted for Haiti, and that’s all the secretary-general wants.”

Haiti’s Foreign Minister Alrich Nicolas read a letter from Preval praising Ban for focusing attention on Haiti’s urgent needs and saying “our country and our people could not hope for a better friend and advocate than President Bill Clinton.”

Clinton said he would be putting together a small staff over the next few days and hoped to visit Haiti “pretty soon.”

In response to a question, he said both the White House and the State Department had given a green light for him to take the U.N. job. “I would not have done this otherwise,” Clinton said.