In the Aftermath of the Earthquake: Rebuilding to Rebalance Haiti
- Emergency Planning & Recovery;
- Latin America and the Caribbean;
- Poverty & Inequality
Over the past five decades Haiti has become terribly out-of-balance. Much of this revolves around the unnatural growth of its cities, especially Port-au-Prince, and the parallel ferocious neglect of the rest of the country, particularly its rural economy and people. Neoliberal investment and trade policies over the past 40 years that emphasized Haiti’s people as little more than a cheap, urban-based labor force and that concurrently starved the country’s traditional agrarian economy of the resources it needed, not only to support those living and working in rural areas but also to produce the food required to feed the nation, have resulted in man-made disasters that are easily compounded when the winds blow and the rain falls, or the earth shakes.i
Because of unmitigated off-the-land migration with poor people piling on top of each other on steep hillsides and in dangerous ravines, river flood plains and coastal mud flats – seeking opportunities that were mostly a mirage – Port-au-Prince had become a disaster waiting to happen.ii Those who perished on January 12th were mostly the poor crowded on hillsides and ravines, and into sub-standard housing. The vast majority of the thousands who died in the floods in Gonaives in 2004 and 2008 were poor people crowded on alluvial coastal mud flats and in river flood plains.
Haiti had also lost its balance in social and economic equity, and in the ability of the state to care for its citizens. By 2007, 68 percent of the total national income went to the wealthiest 20 percent of the population, while 78 percent of the population survived on $2.00 a day or less. Of all the world’s countries, by 2008 Haiti had the second largest overall income gap between the very rich and the very poor. Haitian state institutions had virtually collapsed under the weight of generations of bad governance since the Duvalier era when the state became the vessel for the sanctioned unfettered predation on Haiti’s population.
International balance was off, too. After lording money on the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier (1972-1986), donors have mostly chosen to bypass even democratically elected governments and funnel aid funds through foreign-based NGOs that enacted ‘projects’ drawn up outside of Haiti and that last only as long as the money does. By the 1990s, none other than the President of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, lamented the cacophony of “feel good, flag-draped projects” that had proven a vastly inadequate substitute for a coherent national development strategy.
In the aftermath of the terrible tragedy that visited Haiti on January 12, 2010 there is an opportunity to help Haitians restore their country’s balance. In that regard, here are five recommendations.
At least 500,000 people have now fled Port-au-Prince, leaving behind a city representing death, loss and danger to return to towns and villages from which they had migrated or where they have family. This flight can be a silver lining in today’s very dark cloud, but international actors and the government of Haiti must catch up with and get ahead of it. If conditions in the countryside, already poor, are not improved, the displaced will ultimately return to Port-au-Prince, to replicate the dangerous dynamics of earlier decades.
To catch up and get ahead of this exodus, an idea proffered by the Haitian Government – to reinforce 200 decentralized communities – merits immediate and robust support. Decentralized “Welcome Centers” in these towns and villages can offer relief in the short term, and cluster health, education, job-creation and investment services that will help the rural economy grow. Such state services as agronomic assistance, rarely offered to small farmers, can also operate out of these multifunctional facilities. Throughout Haiti infrastructure can be built or upgraded. Hillsides can be rehabilitated; farmland enriched. Investing in Haiti’s towns and villages will also help to repair a social fabric that has been ripped to shreds by decades of neglect and resultant migration.
Support the creation of a National Civic Service Corps
The institutional piece of decentralization can be a National Civic Service Corps. Since 2007 Haitian authorities have been working on the prospect for such an entity. Now is the time for it to take off. A 700,000-strong corps, composed mostly of young men and women, will rapidly harness untapped labor in both rural and urban settings to rebuild Haiti’s infrastructure; undertake environmental rehabilitation; increase productivity; and restore dignity and pride through meaningful work. It will also form a natural disaster response mechanism. The corps can start modestly, and grow – but start it must.
If this sounds familiar to Americans, it should. This Haitian thinking parallels American thinking when such New Deal programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were created in the 1930’s. We have seen what these ‘cash-for-work’ programs did to help the United States and its people stand up during a difficult time.
Strengthen Haitian state institutions through accompaniment, cooperation and partnership
The aftermath of the earthquake offers an opportunity to help strengthen Haiti’s public institutions, not to bypass or replace them. The capacity of the Haitian state has deteriorated progressively over the past 50 years, from the time of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s (1956 – 1972) rabid policies to centralize everything in Port-au-Prince and prey off of or neglect everything else. International development policies of recent years in favor of non-governmental or private organizations have left the resource-strapped government virtually absent in the lives of its citizens. The already weak state has been further set back by the death of civil servants and the loss of facilities and physical resources.
It is easy to kick someone already on the mat in the teeth. Rather than swinging our foot, we should offer our hand. This is the time of the Haitian government’s greatest need. Over the past four years, that government led by President Rene Preval has won praise internationally – and among most in Haiti – over its improved management of the affairs of the state. Partnership to strengthen the Haitian state was on the horizon following the April 2009 Donors Conference. Let’s stay that course. Generations of bad governance and a zero sum political culture are not turned around overnight.
Get money into the hands of poor people
A key to Haiti’s recovery is to get capital into the hands of the country’s grassroots entrepreneurs. Supporting bottom-up capitalism includes:
- Small loans to entrepreneurs, particularly farmers who will not just produce more food, but also increase employment. Government studies indicate that a 10% increase in man-hours on farms will create 40,000 new jobs. FONKOZE, a Haitian ‘bank for the poor,’ offers a dynamic, functioning example of how this can be done.
- Implementing a conditional cash transfer (CCT) program that puts money in the hands of poor families as long as their children attend quality schools and clinics. CCT programs in Mexico and Brazil have succeeded in assisting millions of poor families improve living standards while investing in the next generation of human resources. Such a program in Haiti could accomplish these goals, but only if educational and health systems are extended into rural areas and upgraded in existing locations. Importantly, CCT programs provide governments the challenge and opportunity of being a positive presence in the lives of citizens. This is essential as a means of demonstrating to Haitian citizens that there are tangible fruits of democratic governance.
Support institutions and leaders who embrace greater inclusion and enact socially-responsible investment strategies.
Factory jobs, such as those promoted by the HOPE II preferential trade act between Haiti and the US, should be a part of Haiti’s future. However, three important points must be kept in mind if this assembly sector job creation strategy is to be a plus in helping Haiti ‘build back better.’
First, universal free education and robust rural investment must parallel factory investments. Also, decentralized agri-business possibilities and the jobs and the infusion of cash they bring to the Haitian economy cannot be ignored.
Second, assembly plants cannot be concentrated in Port-au-Prince. Haiti has at least a dozen coastal cities with functioning, albeit rudimentary, port infrastructures or where a port can be built. This decentralization will rebalance prospects for economic growth and infrastructure development to all of Haiti.
Third, investors, factory owners and managers must be mindful that Haitian workers are more than plentiful cheap labor. Secretary of State Clinton has stated that in Haiti “talent is universal; opportunity is not.” Haiti’s renaissance must improve the ‘opportunity environment’ for all. The country’s Diaspora offers bountiful evidence of what can be achieved when talent is twinned with opportunity.
An environment that will enable all Haitians – including the poor working in assembly plants – to better combine talents with opportunities will have a better chance to become a reality if four conditions are met. First, investors, factory owners and managers must recognize that Haiti’s workers have legitimate aspirations to improve their lives, and their honest days’ work should be a means for that. Survival wages that foster profit maximization at the expense of worker well-being do not enable this to happen. Second, this recognition must be followed with actions that demonstrate socially responsible investing and the creation of public-private partnerships that improve worker status and conditions. Third, the Haitian state must have the strength and resources to become and remain a positive presence in worker’s lives by providing services to them and their children, particularly in education, health and safety from gangs and other criminal elements whose activities are often financed by narcotics trafficking. Finally, the state must have the means at its disposal to make sure that international safety and worker well-being standards are enforced at the workplace, while also being able to enforce the collection of appropriate taxes from investors, owners, and mangers.
If there is a silver lining in the dark cloud of Haiti’s recent catastrophe, it is that it offers Haitians, ‘friends of Haiti’ and those whose connection may simply be as a bureaucrat or investor an opportunity to learn from mistakes made in the relatively recent past and take steps that will rebalance that country. If rebalanced, Haiti can move forward toward less poverty and inequity, diminished social and economic exclusion, greater human dignity, a rehabilitated environment, stronger public institutions, and a national infrastructure for economic growth and investment.
i Up to the 1970s, Haiti did not need to import food. By 2008, it imported 55% of what it ate.
ii The population of Port-au-Prince grew from 762,000 in 1982 to some 2.5 to 3 million at the end of 2009. Haiti’s rural to urban demographic ratio changed from 80 to 20 in the late 1970s to 55 to 45 by 2009.