Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


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.

By Robert Maguire and Robert Muggah / February 18, 2010

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

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.