The long-suffering and immensely resilient Haitian people are coping with the aftermath of the latest in a series of natural disasters. The earthquake of 12 January 2010 is a terrible natural disaster, but many of those it hit were already barely surviving in hillside slums around the capital city of Port-au-Prince - the consequence of their rulers’ past neglect. The current flaws in the provision of aid reinforce their plight, and emphasise the size of the job to be done to meet their immediate and longer-term needs.
Haiti has long been a dysfunctional and fragile state handicapped by a lack of good governance and frequent bouts of political instability. In addition, it has suffered from environmental crises, rampant crime, and a brain-drain which has led as many as 80% of the country’s graduates, professionals and other skilled workers to seek a new homeland.
Now, after the earthquake, Haiti is virtually a collapsed state. The parliament, the presidential palace and the courts of justice have been destroyed, and essential infrastructure is in ruins. The damage is most acute in Port-au-Prince, where a third of Haiti’s population of 10 million live. The task of rebuilding the country after the disaster is daunting.
At the same time, the immediate inheritance is not all bad. Before the earthquake certain positive trends had begun to emerge. Haiti’s president and parliament, elected in 2006, had remained in uninterrupted place for four years – albeit political turbulence had led to two changes of government in this period. The United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (Minustah) had helped bring the security situation under control, and improved security in turn created a more favourable climate for investment by local and foreign entrepreneurs. Now virtually everything will have to be built from scratch – and from an even worse starting-point.
Though the UN’s capacity has been weakened by the collapse of its local headquarters and the loss of many staff members, the UN will continue to play an important role to assist Haitian authorities in this work. However, it is clear that the US will become the main donor in the emergency-aid phase; the leading guarantor of security in the short term; and a significant investor in Haiti’s longer-term reconstruction (see Johanna Mendelson Forman, “Haiti’s earthquake: a future after mercy”, 26 January 2010).
A number of questions have been raised about the US’s role in Haiti’s reconstruction (see Isabel Hilton, “Don't blame the Haitians for doubting US promises”, Independent, 18 January 2010). In particular, some Haitians and non-Haitians fear that the US may use the humanitarian tragedy for its own geopolitical interests, occupying Haiti (as it did in 1915-34, for example) and imposing a protectorate. Many Haitians view relations with the US with some ambivalence, following decades of troubled relations, shifting trade and aid policies and Washington’s cold-war-era support for or tolerance of the Duvalier governments - Francois, “Papa Doc” (1957-71), and his son Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc” (1971-86).
These fears are in part grounded in the very speed with which the US reacted to provide security in Haiti, initially to guarantee the delivery of aid - leading government officials and NGO representatives from several countries to criticise the prioritisation of security. But the absence of any major incidents of civil disorder may be regarded as a vindication of the instant-security measures, which were in any case put in place also to facilitate the near-simultaneous delivery of aid (suggesting that the Barack Obama administration has learned the lesson of its predecessor’s reaction to hurricane Katrina in New Orleans).
Washington has a number of security concerns in Haiti and the region, which its response to the earthquake has highlighted. These include the need to avoid great migratory influxes to the United States; the establishment of a Haitian government able to cooperate in the fight against regional drug-trafficking; the avoidance of instability in the Dominican Republic; and the lessening of Venezuelan and Cuban influence.
There is, too, a domestic political factor in Barack Obama’s reaction to the Haitian disaster. The African-American, mixed-race and Hispanic communities in the US are among the president’s core constituencies, and the massive aid operation in Haiti - which the president referred to in his state-of-the-union speech on 27 January 2010 - is also a way of demonstrating to these voters and supporters that the White House cares about them.
The Obama administration has in its first year in office shown a particular interest in promoting political stability and investment in Haiti. If this approach can be anchored to the wider strategic goals of physical and institutional reconstruction, then the US president will be able to demonstrate a capacity to pursue a “peace surge” that could achieve as good or better results than his “military surge” in Afghanistan.
But this will only become possible if increased commitments from Europe and some Latin American countries are forthcoming. It is crucial in this respect that Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Canada, and Spain (which holds the European Union presidency from January-June 2010) act decisively. Spain has established Haiti as a priority for its development cooperation (see Guy Hedgecoe, “Spain, Europe and the world: Zapatero’s moment”, 11 January 2010); Madrid is thus in a position to lead the EU’s long-term commitment to Haiti, including cooperation for investment in productive sectors and the opening of European markets for future Haitian exports.
The evolving consensus is that the Haitian government must be in the driving-seat of reconstruction, and Haitians themselves would wish to see a coherent national government able to take the lead. But any Port-au-Prince government can hardly be expected to provide effective leadership in the short term at least; the near-invisibility in the days following the disaster of Haiti’s president, René Préval, is symptomatic here.
The transition period, until Haiti is self-sufficient and its people are guaranteed human security and good governance, will last for years. This timeframe will conflict with the hunger from the United States and other donor countries to achieve short-term results. There is a big challenge here too. It is in the shared interest of the US, Europe and Latin America - together with the United Nations - to assume the responsibility of supporting Haiti’s social reconstruction and institutional rebuilding in a coordinated manner. The whole experience will be a major test of state-building, and an opportunity to live up to the promises made but so seldom fulfilled in the 21st-century’s first decade.