Debating aid and Haiti – ISN

All over Port-au-Prince, thousands of buildings will need to be rebuilt (Simon Roughneen)

Aid to Haiti has largely failed in the past, and now faced with the daunting task of rebuilding the capital from the bottom up, many wonder whether international development plans will be lost in the rubble

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Much of Haiti’s capital lies in ruins after the devastating January 12 earthquake. Up to 200,000 people are thought to have died, many now buried in mass graves outside the city. Hundreds of thousands more are homeless, sleeping in the open or in makeshift camps cobbled together with whatever blankets or sheeting people could get hold of. Delivering sufficient quantities of emergency assistance to so many people is proving a logistical nightmare, with the already limited Haitian infrastructure pulverized by the disaster.

While the emergency phase is from over, already Haiti and interested parties such as the US and Canada are looking to the longer term, and trying to raise money and figure out ways to help the western hemisphere’s poorest country get back on its feet – if it ever was fully so – in the months and years ahead.

As memories of the disaster fade, this will be a tall order. Already various notions of a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Haiti have been floated, evoking the US-led public-private partnership that helped rebuild Europe after World War II. Moreover, the task at hand has reignited the debate over the utility of development aid, with some wondering just how effective such a scheme could be in a Haiti that has received around $9billion in foreign assistance in recent decades.

The aid failure

Garaudy Laguerre is head of the Institute for Advanced Political and Social Studies in Port-au-Prince. He told ISN Security Watch, “This earthquake has profoundly affected or destroyed the little state structure that existed, it has also exposed, in our view, the failure of international aid in the way it has been conducted and used in Haiti.”

A 2006 report by the US National Academy of Public Administration “Why Foreign Aid to Haiti Failed”, outlines the many shortcomings of development assistance to Haiti over the long term. Despite all the largesse, the country remained near the bottom of global poverty and development indexes, ranking a lowly 146 in the most recent UN Human Development Report, for example.

Haiti is affected by a brain-drain conundrum. The educated usually emigrate, reducing the skills base available locally. But overseas Haitians support families at home via remittances, with Dilip Ratha estimating that they send home $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion per annum, far exceeding the amount of aid sent to the country.

This remittance money has more of an impact as it goes directly into the hands of poor Haitians, while much development aid goes through corrupt officialdom. Haiti is perceived as one of the most graft-prone countries in the world, and all over Port-au-Prince ISN Security Watch met earthquake survivors who do not want aid sent through the government.

“We hear on radio that billions [in development assistance] are given to Haiti every year by the US and others. We don’t see it. Either it’s all lies, or it goes somewhere else. It doesn’t get sent to here,” one survivor, Pierre Ronald, told ISN Security Watch.

However, given that in 2007 an estimated 65 percent of the national budget came from foreign aid, Haiti has little alternative but to rely on international assistance for the immediate future, with 5-10-year timetables floated at a Montreal donor conference in Haiti earlier this week.

Strategic interests

Getting international agreement on what will be done to help Haiti might be difficult. Much was made in the initial days about the US deployment to Port-au-Prince – with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez claiming that Washington was invading Haiti, and NGOs decrying what they saw as preferential treatment given to US military flights over emergency relief cargo.

US military aid flight touches down at Port-au-Prince airport, 3 days after the earthquake. (Simon Roughneen)

However, American intervention has slowly unclogged some of the aid backlog into Haiti, and the international airport is operating way above normal capacity under US military control. The US is the only country with the heavy lift capacity to make a difference right now.

Of course, Haiti is strategically important to Washington because of its proximity and the potential for refugees flowing into the US, which already hosts an estimated 30,000 illegal Haitian migrants. Haiti is also a major transit point for drugs smuggled from South America to the US.

The US will be the main player in reconstruction, though others will contribute. Canada claims to be the biggest donor to Haiti on a per capita basis, while Brazil has been the lead actor in MINUSTAH, the UN peacekeeping mission established in 2004 after Haiti was wracked by one of its intermittent bouts of political violence. France is the former colonial power, which imposed a crippling indemnity scheme on Haiti after 1804, when a slave revolt ended French rule and led to the establishment of the Haitian state.”

All four countries either have strategic interests in Haiti, or have some historic debt to repay, or a bit of both. Despite the fact that Haiti sits on a quake-prone fault line, the notions of debt and interest have sparked some conspiratorial ramblings about the cause of the disaster. Akin to US televangelist Pat Robertson saying that the earthquake was divine retribution for a satanic pact made before 1804 by Haiti’s slave rebels, Chavez accused the US military of causing the earthquake with the testing of a ‘tectonic weapon.’

Overwhelming challenges

How this international acrimony translates into an effective program to rebuild Haiti remains to be seen, as does the content and extent of the rebuilding work. ‘Rebuilding’ is probably too limited a term to describe the full extent of what is needed. Much of the city will have to be physically rebuilt, often from scratch: 20,000 commercial buildings have collapsed or must be razed, as well as 225,000 residences. A bigger international airport will have to be looked at, along with perhaps second airports and seaports.

Aside from physical reconstruction, President Rene Preval has said that decentralization could reduce the slum-swelling drift to the capital and bring some development to the impoverished rural areas.

Other suggestions include ways to diversify Haiti’s economy, which is a basic mix of subsistence agriculture, involving around 70 percent of the population, and textile exports to the US under a preferential trading scheme. Some have suggested that Chinese-style special export processing zones be set up to support and foster trade-oriented production. And a stable, well-marketed Haiti could prove a viable tourist destination.

Attracting foreign investment is another issue. Some of the companies that have gone into Haiti have encouraged others to follow. However, making this happen will not be easy in a country marked by instability, poverty and corruption. Irrespective of stated motives, no company invests out of sheer altruism, and creating the business environment conducive to large-scale investment means getting the bigger rebuilding process right.

The Haitian state will need sufficient ownership of the work, at some stage, but when and how is not clear. In many ways, the Haitian state is an illusion. Since the earthquake, the government has met in a tent, and has been criticized for its apparent unwillingness to speak directly to Haitians.

There is also a danger that a power vacuum could emerge in a politically unstable country, 60 percent of whose population are categorized as ‘youth,’ according to Laguerre. With the government reliant on international support, in time opponents could see an opportunity amid institutional chaos and growing public disaffection.

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