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.

International discussions on how to deal with postquake Haiti are shifting from lifesaving relief efforts to the more complex task of rebuilding the country. 

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. 

This is not a new idea. Provisions for civic service exist in the Haitian Constitution and local authorities have been discussing the idea since at least 2007. The idea parallels the creation of such US New Deal programs as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. It is also analogous in some ways to volunteer youth schemes in at least a dozen other Latin American and Caribbean countries. 

3. Support the reconstitution of Haitian state institutions through accompaniment, cooperation, and partnership. Rather than replacing or bypassing public entities, donors must focus on reinforcing them as a real and visible force in the lives of Haitian citizens. Civil servants will need to be recruited and trained, and physical facilities must be literally rebuilt from the ashes.

Haiti’s government deserves an outstretched hand. Since 2006, the Préval administration has earned international praise and recognition for its handling of domestic affairs. An international donors’ conference in 2009 expressed enhanced confidence. Although corruption, irregular migration, and narcotics trafficking remain important concerns to some governments, these gains should not be forgotten. 

4. Get cash into the hands of the poor. The key to recovery is not charity, but rather getting capital to grass-roots entrepreneurs, including small farmers. The United Nations Development Program has already mobilized cash-for-work schemes in Port-au-Prince to positive effect. Likewise, a 10 percent increase in man-hour labor on farms could create up to 40,000 new jobs. 

A conditional cash transfer program would also stimulate bottom-up capitalism. Drawing on the positive experiences of Brazil and Mexico, cash support can be tied to the attendance of children in schools and clinics. Ensuring that women administer these funds is central. But these kinds of activities will only succeed if educational and health systems are upgraded and extended to rural areas. 

5. Support leaders who embrace greater inclusion and enact socially responsible investment strategies. More jobs in the manufacturing sector should be part of Haiti’s future. The easing of duties on Haitian goods will be an important driver. But if the country is really to be “built back better,” industrial growth must be accompanied by free universal education and agrarian investment.

At a minimum, investment in factories and assembly plants should also be aggressively decentralized beyond Port-au-Prince. Port and transportation infrastructure can be expanded in at least a dozen other coastal cities. A decentralized growth strategy will result in balanced economic growth. 

Above all else, any efforts to promote the rebalancing of Haiti must be accompanied with respect for its people. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted last year that in Haiti, “talent is universal; opportunity is not.” To be successful, Haiti’s rebirth must improve the conditions for growth and opportunity for all. Haiti’s impressive diaspora from Florida and New York to Montreal and Paris offers evidence of what can be achieved when opportunities are twinned with talent. 

Robert Muggah is research director of the Small Arms Survey and a principal of the SecDev Group. Robert Maguire is a professor of international affairs at Trinity Washington University and chair of the Haiti Working Group at the US Institute of Peace.


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