Envisioning a new Haiti

Outlines of hope emerge from the country's earthquake disaster. When experts think outside the box – what do they believe would really save the nation?

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor
An aerial view of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with thousands of people living in a tent city (foreground). Picture taken from U.S. Navy helicopter, January 15, 2009.

There is a grim joke about Haiti among international development workers. This country of coups and hurricanes and now a catastrophic earthquake, they say, has had 17 successful peacekeeping missions.

The number is exaggerated – since 1993 there have been only five United Nations interventions in the country – but it still gets at a truism when it comes to donor relationships with Haiti. From 1990 to 2003, Haiti received more than $4 billion in international aid; since 2004, the United States alone has given more than $600 million to improve governance, security, and economic recovery. Yet during this time, Haiti has gotten poorer and remains the most impoverished and unstable country in the Western Hemisphere.

Now, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake has flattened Port-au-Prince, the capital city, killing tens of thousands. Will it also shake the foundations of how the international community interacts with this vibrantly proud, yet desperately poor, nation? Could there be hope in this tragedy, a chance for those working for Haiti to throw off the strictures of political correctness and diplomatic etiquette and do what they really think could work?

Indeed, says Arielle Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian-American development contractor who has spent years working in Haiti and who lost family members in the quake, "Nothing is standing. None of the offices. None of the government buildings. This is an opportunity."

The Monitor spoke to two dozen scholars, aid workers, environmentalists, and diplomats with deep roots in Haiti about their blue-sky visions in this dark time. They looked beyond the immediate disaster and outside the frustrating box of financial and political restraints that have foiled years of efforts to help Haiti, to prescribe their own solutions for the country's problems.

The spectrum of ideas is broad and controversial, including everything from turning Haiti into a UN protectorate to paying reparations for the US's crippling treatment of the newly independent, black-led republic in the early 1800s.

Most of these concepts would usually prove too contentious in most development circles. But for Haiti, these are extraordinary times.

In the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake, many in Haiti saw their government as missing in action and international aid workers as their best hope for food, water, and medical care.

"They can give Haiti 100 percent to foreigners," says Camille Lacombe, an 81-year-old retired factory worker in Port-au-Prince. "The Haitian people cannot rebuild the way we need. They steal too much money."

Some even echo that sentiment for the long term, beyond the immediate crisis. "We need a Marshall Plan," says Pierre Boncy, a physician at the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince. "We are on our knees. We do not have time to discuss who is in command."

The Haitian street in recent decades has been pro-American and welcoming of the largest aid donor to the country, though at tense political junctures Haitian leadership has had plenty of criticism of insensitivity to local realities and what seem like quid pro quos that go along with aid. But gauging Haitian sentiment at the moment, Dr. Boncy says that if the US comes to Haiti providing aid and generating jobs there will be no backlash: "It is a black country, and it could be perceived as a white occupation. There could be some issues. But if they come here and build, and the Haitian worker is working, it will be OK. In other countries [Americans] are fighting evil versus good. It does not give a good perception. Here it will be for security."

Robert Pastor, who was a senior adviser to the US mission to restore the democratically elected and overthrown Jean-Bertrand Aristide to presidential power in 1994, believes international donors should take advantage of this goodwill and ask Haitians – through a referendum – to allow their country to become a 10-year UN trusteeship or to approve some other form of strong international control.

This would allow those long ineffective aid dollars to flow through a more productive government, he says, that could focus on top priority concerns such as rural development and education. Illiteracy is hard to measure exactly in Haiti, but it is at least 50 percent, and Dr. Pastor suggests that schools could swallow hard and drop Creole instruction in favor of French and English to better prepare Haitian students for the global economy. (This, of course, is controversial: Though it has limited use elsewhere, Creole is all Haitians' first language.)

"The question is a very, very hard one," Pastor says of the international trusteeship. "What makes us think that by denying the democratic process and putting leadership in the hands of an international organization [it] is more likely to succeed than putting it in the hands of the democratic process? I spent my career advocating the democratic process and believe in it. But Haiti is an exception."

Even those who do not necessarily advocate international control over Haiti believe that international aid to the country should be bolstered and streamlined.

Kara McDonald, a Haiti specialist and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that aid in the past has been both inconsistent and unaccountable. She believes that the international community should designate one body, perhaps run by a military-civilian leadership in the way Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have managed foreign interventions in Iraq, to manage a consolidated aid effort in Haiti.

"If you look at the funding footprint – and this is just from the US, not even the whole international community – you have funding from 10 different agencies, and within those agencies, 10 different offices with many different activities. It presents a very large problem with accountability."

She also says that the international community must commit to a strong presence in Haiti for years, if not decades, to come. Typically, she says, funding spikes after a dis-aster such as the earthquake, but then decreases as media and political attention turns elsewhere.

"It's a classic donor dynamic," she says. "The pictures are horrific, the spigots are turned on, everyone wants to do something until the relief mission gets to a point where it is sustainable. But just when the country gets to the tipping point – just when it is taking steps to sustainability – that's when international attention begins to wane."

This, she says, is just when a country needs the attention most.

It is a sentiment shared within Haiti.

"Right now, we have to take care of the hurt. But while some are taking care of the hurt, others have to start thinking about the country. We have lost government buildings, schools, universities. It will be too hard for us to build alone in the short term," says Steeve Victor, a doctor who works at Hope for Haiti, a nonprofit. "Alone it will take us 50 years to get the country to where it was before. Right now the important thing is that Haiti is running; it is not important who is doing it."

On the other end of the spectrum, however, are those who believe the problem with foreign aid – and the reason that it has been so ineffective in Haiti – is that outsiders maintain far too much control.

Even when money is earmarked for projects within a developing country, this cash often goes either into government coffers or to large American and European consultancy firms, which then may – or may not – contract with local individuals or nongovernmental organizations to fulfill a donor's mission, such as improved schools or better healthcare.

In Haiti, says Jim Morrell, executive director of the Washington, D.C.,-based Haiti Democracy Project, donor money has long flowed either to government officials or their cohorts. It has often exacerbated the division between the country's elite and the impoverished majority.

In his view, the US and other donors could better serve Haiti by giving support directly to civil society groups – associations of educators or businesspeople, for instance, or human rights advocates. Shift money and technical expertise to some of these groups, he says, and Haitians will be able to reform their own society.

"I do not buy the idea that Haiti is not capable of providing for itself," Mr. Morrell says. "There are Haitians who are capable of planning, of organizing. But they are on the outside. They are excluded from power. And what the US has been doing is reinforcing that system.... It's easier for the US to work with the power holders [who are] in place. The US clings to the status quo."

Since the Duvalier family dictatorships – François "Papa Doc" Duvalier starting in the 1950s and later his son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, overthrown in 1986 – development money in Haiti has been focused in urban areas, and particularly in the capital city, which became known as "the republic of Port-au-Prince" for its privilege. In the mid-1980s, for instance, the government spent nearly 65 percent of its revenue on the capital, which then was home to only 20 percent of Haiti's population. Over the next decades, international investors believed they could make money by investing in factories in the city with wages low by US standards, but high for an undeveloped nation; at one point many of the baseballs tossed in America were made in urban Haiti. Meanwhile, the pick-and-hoe poverty of the rest of the country was largely ignored.

"There has been so little development done outside the main capital city," says Yasmine Shamsie, an assistant professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. "That is what has pushed people off the land and directed them geographically there."

In recent decades, a flood of rural Haitians has hit Port-au-Prince in search of jobs. Even before the earthquake, the infrastructure in the capital city was ill-equipped to handle the explosion of migrants that increased the city's population from around 750,000 in the 1980s to 2.5 million before the quake. The new residents crowded into shantytowns by steep ravines and on mountainsides or right up to the sea – locations particularly vulnerable to natural disaster.

Professor Shamsie and other scholars believe donors and the Haitian government should fund more projects in rural areas to reverse this trend and also to support the rural regions where most of the country's population still resides.

"In economic development terms, there has been very little done in rural Haiti – ever," she says. "You couldn't really say that rural development or agriculture or any rural-based plans have failed in Haiti because they really have never been tried."

Shamsie's focus is agriculture. She believes that funding an agricultural development bank, improving irrigation construction, and providing farm extension services would help boost food production in the country, which has been undermined by years of underdevelopment and cheap food imports from the US.

Bob Maguire, a professor at Trinity University in Washington, D.C., who lived for many years in Haiti, believes a national civil service corps, with a focus on rural Haiti, could serve the same function of drawing people away from Port-au-Prince, while also improving the country for the long haul. If the Haitian government, with international financial support, created work projects to build irrigation systems, establish road networks, and replant forests, Professor Maguire says, it could attract people to other parts of the country and more evenly spread development.

"It could function much in the same way that the US, during the New Deal, created institutions that put people to work," Maguire says.

The earthquake, he says, could be a spark for this sort of investment: "There will be displaced people. Rather than doing the traditional thing of putting them in camps, we might want to think a little more forward, along the lines of taking more advantage of this and having people reintegrate into the countryside and rebuild rural Haiti."

Fly over Hispaniola, and it is easy to see the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which uneasily share this 30,000-square-mile island. The line is clear: To the west, the landscape is brown and barren, the shoreline outlined with a muddy ring. This is Haiti. To the east, the land is lush and green, outlined by the white sand beaches of tourist resorts. This is the Dominican Republic.

The stark contrast reveals what many conservationists view as a nightmare scenario of deforestation. Of Haiti's 30 watersheds, Maguire says, 25 are devoid of vegetation cover. Because the earth is not able to absorb water, rainfall runs down the mountainous landscape, causing landslides and flooding, and stripping soil of nutrients as it flows to the sea.

Although it's not a new idea, reforestation is key to any future plan for Haiti, say environmentalists. Ms. Jean-Baptiste, the development contractor, says she'd like to see a wide-scale anti-erosion project that distributes quick-growing, deep-rooted trees. The Jatropha tree, for instance, is a biofuel-producing plant that has been the centerpiece of reforestation and agrobusiness efforts in other developing countries.

But the best approach to Haiti is one that treats the island of Hispaniola as one ecological unit, suggest some environmentalists.

Glenn Smucker, an anthropologist who grew up in Haiti and has consulted for USAID there, notes that the Dominican Republic and Haiti share water resources and protected areas; irrigation programs along the border also affect both countries.

"There are all kinds of ecological links that are very pertinent," he says.

He also notes that the island is increasingly one labor market – the human ecology of Hispaniola, no matter how much the richer Dominican Republic may wish to deny it, is one system.

"The island of Hispaniola is a single economy," Mr. Smucker says. "Both countries would be served by having a carefully thought-out and negotiated bilateral agreement in how to manage their joint shared interests. There is everything to be gained by that, and a great deal to be lost by not having it."

The Dominican Republic has long looked down upon Haiti, even as it has depended on low-wage Haitian labor in its sugar plantations and, more recently, in its booming construction industry. And although the Dominican Republic was the first country to send aid to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake, it has long taken a dim view of Haitian immigrants and has recently passed what human rights groups see as increasingly repressive laws against both migrant workers and Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Still, some estimates put the numbers of Haitian migrants and immigrants in the Dominican Republic at close to a million. And given other links between the two countries – from drug smuggling to water usage to HIV – some scholars say that a necessary part of Haiti's future is a more holistic approach to the island.

"We need to reinforce the capacity of the Dominican Republic to absorb refugees and create employment for Dominicans as well as Haitians," says Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

TO hit at the root of both environmental devastation and tensions with the Dominican Republic, however, Haiti must begin to tackle poverty. And to tackle poverty, say former diplomats and aid workers, Haiti must open its doors – to businesses, private investment, and the professionally skilled Haitian diaspora.

"So many of the educated people have left," says Edward Luck, senior vice president of the International Peace Institute in New York. "Now there should be a way to draw them back so they can reinvest their future in Haiti's future."

This might seem a bit far-fetched for those who remember bodies washing up on the shores of Miami Beach after Haitians started braving rickety boats and Caribbean waters to escape their country in the 1980s. Or, for that matter, to anyone watching footage of the destruction caused by this month's earthquake.

But if there were a more open-door policy between the US and Haiti, and if Haiti could make some key changes to its laws to encourage business, some say, perhaps those with an emotional connection to the country would be tempted to give more than the remittances they already send.

Tim Carney, a former US ambassador to Haiti, for instance, says the country should allow for easier access to land and property: Currently the land title system in Haiti is complicated at best and often so unclear as to stymie property investment. Ambassador Carney also believes the Haitian government should court private investors and assure foreign companies that they will not again face the threat of nationalization that came under former President Aristide.

"Business, after all, is the engine of prosperity," Carney says. "It has to be."

In a country where dictators and democratic presidents alike have been accused of pocketing huge amounts of public money, Mr. Luck says that the government should demonstrate international accounting standards.

But just as Haiti would benefit from an increase in outside business and a return of diaspora members, it would also do well if its people were allowed to leave. If Haitians could go to the US easily, they would not only relieve some of the population pressure on the country's environment, some say, but would also be able to get the sort of education and professional experience still unavailable in Haiti. And then they could return to Haiti with newfound skills.

"If I ruled the world, and I could do one thing for the country, I would give every Haitian a ticket to Miami," says Charles Kelly, an environmental disaster consultant who has worked there.

Although its story was long excluded from American history books, Haiti is the New World's second oldest republic, its first of free men, and the first black republic of the modern world. And since its inception, says Noam Chomsky, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholar and foreign-policy activist, it has been impoverished and traumatized by the US and Europe.

If the developed world really wants to help Haiti – which Dr. Chomsky says he questions – then it should start off by paying the country massive reparations. This is what is owed a dignified nation with a proud history, he says, not the same imperial rhetoric of "helping" and "improving" that has been used to mask foreign exploitation of developing countries for generations.

There is a basis for reparations, which Aristide requested to no avail in 2004.

After a slave rebellion in 1804 succeeded in liberating the rich colony from France, Haiti was shunned by other countries – including by the newly independent, slave-holding US, which was terrified about the precedent Haiti set for its own black population. (For generations, the concept that a black country could have a similar revolution to that of a white country was simply unfathomable.)

Twenty years after Haiti's independence, France forced the young country to pay 90 million francs in return for recognizing the former colony – an amount estimated to be equal to about $21 billion today. The payment was devastating to the infant nation but necessary to end a more damaging embargo from Europe and the US. Throughout the next century, Chomsky says, racist, exploitative, and violent interventions from the US and elsewhere – from a Woodrow Wilson-ordered invasion of the country in 1915 to the support of the Duvalier regimes to harsh international economic policies that undermined farmers and encouraged corruption – repeatedly damaged the country and led to its current predicament.

"You ask what should be done," he says. "If we were honest, France and the US would be paying major reparations to Haiti. Massive reparations. Their countries have decimated Haiti. Now they are giving advice."

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