Haiti beyond failure: ingredients of change

A year after the earthquake in Haiti, the tasks of reconstruction remain vast. A shadowy election and blocked political process reinforce the sense of drift. Yet a coherent international effort can still make a real difference, says Johanna Mendelson Forman.
Johanna Mendelson Forman
24 January 2011

A year after the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince on 12 January 2010 and killed as many as 300,000 people, the country remains in crisis. An election to select the country’s next leader has gone awry, with no clear winner and a contested vote. A cholera epidemic has raged through both urban and rural Haiti, affected over 200,000 people and caused almost 4,000 deaths. Cholera is the ultimate disease of poverty, a testament to the lack of any sanitation system or access to potable water.

Port-au-Prince today more resembles an apocalyptic scene from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road than any romantic-touristic image of a Caribbean isle. The Haitian-American author Edwige Danticat eloquently evokes the image of the national palace’s “gorgeous white domes either tipped over or caved in” as “the biggest symbol of the Haitian government’s monumental loss of human and structural capital”, and - in a reference to the devastation of the Basque city in 1936 during Spain’s civil war, immortalised by Pablo Picasso’s painting - describes the earthquake of 2010 as “our Guernica”.

Haiti is neither a typical Caribbean country (if such a thing exists) nor a place for the faint-hearted. It is a nation with a proud and strong nationalist tradition, the first to shed the shackles of slavery and become independent of a colonial power in 1804 - all of which makes its fate and reputation today even more shocking. It is a country that has yet to overcome its legacies of authoritarian rule and of endemic poverty. 

Haiti was a failed state before the term ever entered the post-cold-war lexicon. As the record-setter for poverty, hunger, disease, transnational crime and corruption, it has become the western-hemisphere poster-child for all that can go wrong with development. In spite of decades of investment from the donor community, there is little to show. Since the 1980s, Haiti is the only country to see a long-term decline in GDP per capita.

Between 1990 and 2008, official donors disbursed $6.9 billion (of which $911 million was spent in 2008 alone after three hurricanes in quick succession). The United States has been the largest bilateral donor of humanitarian and development assistance since 1990; Canada and the European Union are next. Yet these funds have brought little relief to Haitians, who have continued to suffer the effects of insecurity, grinding poverty and disease.

What is most striking about this anniversary is that Haiti’s situation is more akin to the nursery-rhyme Humpty Dumpty than to the vision expected by so many members of the international community as a result of this tragic natural disaster. After the death and destruction of the earthquake - whose tens of thousands of deaths included the leadership of the United Nations Mission in Haiti (Minustah), the largest single loss of staff for the UN in its history - there was a sense that this time Haiti’s reconstruction would be different. Today, however, the sense is that “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, none could Humpty Dumpty back together again”.

This is the story both of Haiti’s destruction, and also of the hope and efforts by so many - both the rich and famous, and the average citizen - to put Haiti back together again. The notion of “building back better”, in an oft-used phrase, remains an elusive goal.

The response

Haiti is no stranger to natural disasters. In 2009-10 Haiti was battered by strong hurricanes that devastated cities, killed hundreds of innocent victims, and (most recently) just missed a direct hit by yet another strong storm. In September 2008 not one but three hurricanes battered Haiti, each one leaving great destruction in its wake. These events make rebuilding all the more difficult (see “Haiti’s earthquake: a future after mercy”, 26 January 2010).

After the destruction of 2008, the Oxford economist Paul Collier - author of The Bottom Billion - was asked to consider how Haiti compared to other fragile states. He noted that Haiti was still in a better position than other countries emerging from conflict. His optimism was based on the following factors: resources, proximity to the US and Canada, abundant and cheap labour, a large and dedicated diaspora, a UN force that enables security, and a lack of ethnic conflict. These conditions have not changed. What has complicated the situation is the continued deterioration of governance.

What is abundantly clear, looking back at this post-quake year, is that Haiti’s problem is not a lack of money to move forward. There has been an overwhelming outpouring of international goodwill, evident in the huge resources pledged to help Haiti. At the UN donor’s conference in New York in March 2010, pledges of $5,997 billion from twenty-two of the top donors ensured that there would be sufficient funds until 2015 to run the government and begin rebuilding infrastructure.

In addition, private charities donated more than $2 billion in the days and months following the earthquake. Through cellphones and television marathons, money poured in to so many groups that the latter - under the coordination of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the non-governmental organisation InterAction - set up an online website to ensure transparency and accountability for these funds. (The IDB has announced that in 2010 it had disbursed $176 million since the earthquake). Even these figures do not include the in-kind contributions of professional groups - doctors, architects, engineers, and teachers - who have volunteered their time to help in the reconstruction.

Haiti has the potential to overcome some of the economic and structural issues that prevent it from rebuilding, yet it lacks a history of institutional development to ensure that such large investments can translate into real projects. Weak government, the absence of a state presence in rural areas, and the inability to provide resources to regional departments undermine the rebuilding efforts (see "Haiti's earthquake: a Port-au-Prince report", 13 July 2010). 

For example, it is hard to support a community or to move people from tent cities if there is no viable land-titling system, no civil registry, or a clear mechanism for verifying property-ownership. It is even harder when the current government refuses to use its power of eminent domain to take back lands in the interest of public welfare. It is even more frustrating to see how so many makeshift encampments (an estimate is that there are around 1,350 in Port-au-Prince) remain on city lots for lack of alternative living arrangements.

But underlying this current situation is a deeper political motive that was reinforced by the electoral calendar. Urban shantytowns have often been more responsive to certain political groups and thus, more likely to vote in elections. Would it be too cynical to suggest that many of those displaced, and also those who are living amidst the rubble, serve an important political function that Haitian politicians are less than willing to talk about?

The problem

Haiti is a patrimonial state where relationships matter more than merit. This situation has led to a government that is considered to lack legitimacy. The elections held on 28 November 2010 were contested by nineteen candidates chosen by the electoral council (one of them clearly the favourite of President René Preval), which created an as yet unresolved crisis of confidence in the process. The polls conducted after the election showed that 85% of Haitians had no confidence in their president.

The situation at the time of writing makes the top vote-getter Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady and senator, the frontrunner; with Preval’s candidate Jude Celestin is a distant second, and musician and songwriter Michel Martelly is third.

The street violence against the electoral process underscores a belief that there was widespread fraud. The Organisation of American States (OAS) and Caricom, the international organisation and regional group that was charged with overseeing the process, have been negotiating a recount. A second round of elections, originally scheduled for 16 January 2011, has been postponed until observers finish a ballot recount. 

Many are doubtful that this will solve the crisis, partly on the grounds that Haiti’s history of a “winner-takes-all” approach to elections may undermine any type of solution recommended by the international observers (see Amélie Gauthier, “Haiti: empty stomachs, stormy politics”, 21 April 2008). The return from exile of Haiti’s former “president-for-life”, Jean-Claude Duvalier, on 16 January 2011 is a complicating factor in an already unsettled political situation.

A way out of this latest governance crisis is essential if there is to be any progress in recovering from this earthquake. The evidence of interviews with Haitians conducted in early November 2010 suggests that many were frustrated with the lack of progress since the earthquake and tended to place much of the blame on Preval. The UN figures reveal that less than 45% of the $2.1 billion pledged for Haiti’s reconstruction during 2010 at the international donor’s conference has been spent. There is good reason for citizen scepticism, which may yet result in some form of interim government to advance the reconstruction.

Who’s to blame? It is always easy to try and identify one cause or one person. It is certainly not possible to point a finger at a person or institution. Haiti’s already weak government was completely devastated by the earthquake. For example, twenty-seven of twenty-eight ministries collapsed, killing large numbers of civil servants, destroying records, and making an already challenging situation almost unworkable.

The establishment of an Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC) in March 2010, headed by Haitian prime minister Jean Max Bellerive and UN special envoy and former US president, Bill Clinton, established a mechanism for resource-distribution and project-management; but it was late in getting off the ground, and had a cumbersome decision-making process.

The slow pace of reconstruction coupled with the electoral stalemate make any short-term progress very unlikely. No matter how much the private sector tries to create partnerships, no matter how much the UN and its agencies work to restore some degree of normalcy for the average Haitian, in the end it is still the broad failure of Haitian leaders that makes the current situation so troubling.

Yet an unlikely aspect of Haiti’s situation is that given the resources promised, the next president will have a huge financial base on which to implement much needed changes. This will be a first for a country whose national budget was comprised of foreign assistance and remittances from the diaspora. There will be money for roads, education, capacity-building, and for the provision of security by Haitians themselves rather than the UN. What it will then take to move things forward is the emergence of a leader who can restore public trust among Haiti’s beleaguered citizens.

The opportunity

So what does “building back better” mean today?  It means that the international community and its Haitian counterparts must come to an understanding quickly about what is at stake after one year of delay and a real lack of visible signs of progress. Without some sense of legitimacy in the Haitian government, the frustrations of millions of displaced people may overflow into street violence and even greater insecurity that will scare away even the most willing investors.

The United States in particular can hardly afford to have Haiti fail once again, for reasons that mix altruism and self-interest. Another failure would demonstrate that the US is incapable even of helping serve as a catalyst for change in a fragile state in our own region. More positively, if the Barack Obama government is true to its convictions then Haiti may become a microcosm for a new vision of development that stresses the importance of communities, and recognises that local ownership, shared responsibility, and decentralisation of programming are going to be a priority for the long term. Instead of letting Haiti fall back into chaos, the US can learn the core lesson of past engagement with Haiti and other fragile states: that only a long-term approach can prevent disaster. 

Haiti’s geographical position, benign neighbourhood and recent history of natural disaster rather than war should make it far easier for the United States to play a healing and regenerative role than in respect of Afghanistan or Iraq. Together with other democracies of the hemisphere, who have also articulated strong support for Haiti’s reconstruction, the US can work to provide the space, the investments and the opportunities finally to move Haiti towards becoming a viable and capable state (see Toni Faret & Mariano Aguirre, "Haiti: the politics of recovery", 28 January 2010).

There is still time for the Barack Obama administration to turn this tragedy into an opportunity for Haiti and the wider region. The president could use his trademark approach of engagement through multilateralism to forge a new partnership with Caribbean, central and south American states that, in cooperation with Haiti’s people, makes all forms of assistance to the region’s most desperate nation a means of progress.

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