Five smart ways to rebuild Haiti
Haiti doesn’t need a Marshall Plan imposed by global elites. It needs improved conditions that empower all its people.
Washington and Rio de Janeiro
International discussions on how to deal with postquake Haiti are shifting from lifesaving relief efforts to the more complex task of rebuilding the country.Skip to next paragraph
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Opinions about how to reconstruct Haiti tend to coalesce into two camps.
On one side are the reformists – in author Naomi Klein’s formulation, the “disaster capitalists.” To the reformers, disasters in fragile states such as Afghanistan, Sudan, and Haiti represent opportunities to “build back better.” Leading development thinkers Jean-Louis Warnholz and Paul Collier, for example, have proposed a Marshall Plan, including a provisional development authority and a strategic scheme to reengineer Haiti’s economic and social foundations.
On the other side are the critics, themselves social activists, veteran aid practitioners, and citizens deeply skeptical of the global aid industry. Critics contend that foreign aid rarely offers more than band-aid solutions to what are ultimately intractable structural problems such as unequal terms of trade, poor governance, and underdevelopment. They argue that development assistance itself is a pretext for pro-market and insidious geopolitical agendas.
But a middle way also exists. This middle way acknowledges Haiti’s specific historical patterns of inequality and the need for a rebuilding vision that is sensitive to these realities. Just as important, this view also highlights the importance of rebalancing a country that was teetering on disaster before the quake.
For decades, as Haiti’s agrarian economy was neglected, the rural poor flooded Port-au-Prince, occupying steep hills, flood-prone ravines and coastal mud flats. They sought opportunity that was typically a fading mirage. Those killed by the quake were mostly poor people crowded onto marginal land, living in precarious substandard homes and facing the direst economic prospects imaginable.
To be sure, these imbalances reflect Haiti’s fundamental inequalities as a whole. Before the disaster, roughly 70 percent of total national income was held by just 20 percent of the population, most of them a narrow urban (and predominantly mulatto) elite residing in Port-au-Prince. Generations of terrible governance preserved this unjust status quo.
Meanwhile, international donors sidelined Haiti’s stark inequalities. From the 1990s onward, they bypassed democratically elected governments, channeling funds instead to foreign nongovernmental organizations enacting projects designed by outsiders. Their quest for domestic stability only resulted in more poverty and a progressive weakening of the state.
Today, as relief gives way to reconstruction, foreign and domestic authorities have an unprecedented opportunity to reverse these historical trends. The March 31 donor conference offers a platform for the Haitian government, the United Nations and its emissary Bill Clinton, private banks, governments, businesses, and civil society to rebalance Haiti for good.
At a minimum, they should consider a comprehensive strategy that includes the following five priorities:
1. Encourage real and meaningful decentralization. Close to 1 million Haitians have already fled Port-au-Prince for towns and villages from which they originally migrated since the 1960s. But if conditions in the countryside are not improved, and quickly, these people will drift back to Port-au-Prince and rebuild as before.
The Haitian government’s proposal to provide real opportunities in 200 towns and villages equipped with “welcome centers” merits support. These centers will issue short-term relief, and bundle health, education, job-creation, and investment services to help the rural economy take off.
2. Support the Haitian government’s efforts to establish a national civic service corps. Building on the symbolism of the magnitude-7.0 earthquake, a 700,000-strong civic service corps could harness underutilized labor in urban and rural settings. Youth can rebuild Haiti’s infrastructure. They could also support badly needed environmental rehabilitation and serve as rapid-response units for future calamities.