Haiti: Can Catastrophe Spur Progress?

The earthquake that hit Haiti on 12 January 2010, while unprecedented in scale, underscores what the 2008 hurricanes revealed about the state’s incapacity to protect its people. An earthquake of 7.0 on the Richter scale would cause damage in California or Japan, so a much poorer country like Haiti was bound to suffer dearly. Yet the utter devastation of huge swathes of the capital could have been mitigated, even in Haiti.

First, barely one year before the earthquake, a geologist at the University of Havana noted that a large earthquake on the fault line running near Port-au-Prince was highly likely. He urged the government and population of Haiti to take precautionary measures to prepare for a large quake. Second, right after the La Promesse school collapse in November 2008, the mayor of Port-au-Prince stated that over half of Haiti’s buildings “were shoddily built and unsafe.” Once again it was noted that Haiti has no national building code; no inspectors visit construction sites or punish contractors for diluting cement or other shortcuts to increase profits at the expense of safety.

Yet on my most recent trip to Port-au-Prince last December I noted that on the hillside across the valley from the Hotel Montana, now in ruins, the steady march of squat, gray cement houses across and up the mountain had continued since my previous visit in 2007. These buildings, perched on a steep slope with no electricity, roads, sewers or any type of city service, defy any rational land use or urban planning. Yet no one was stopping them.

So the deadly mix of lax enforcement, no planning and scant prevention that led to thousands dying in the 2008 hurricanes and 98 kids being crushed to death in one school in 2008, has meant that tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of people, have been killed. While it would be grossly unfair to blame the Haitian state for all of these deaths, surely with some preparation, some heeding of the warning last year that a quake was imminent and preventing on-going construction in precarious zones, some, even many lives, could have been saved. This was a disaster waiting to happen.

What to do? Once the emergency phase is over, Haitians, with strong support from the international donor community, must finally strive to build a state worthy of its people. Politicians will have to end their selfish “winner-take-all” approach. Citizens will have to demand that their public servants actually serve the public interest and deliver the necessities that are their right like clean water, food, adequate shelter, education.

Donors must work with the state and not rely so heavily on non-governmental organizations. This is real “nation-building” and we cannot shy away from the task. Haiti has been called a “Republic of NGOs” with more NGOs per capita than any country on earth. Some are excellent, many not so wonderful; some perform functions that should primarily be the state’s responsibility. This cannot continue.

Finally, as the devastated capital smolders, attention to rural Haiti must become a top priority. Haiti remains essentially an agricultural country with potential to produce much of the food it needs plus tropical fruit and coffee for export. Port-au-Prince became bloated since the Duvalier era, holding 10 times as many people as it was designed to accommodate. The countryside held no possibilities, denuded hillsides where tropical rains washed away topsoil, made farming even more difficult. So people flocked into shantytowns that filled those hillsides and port-side slums with those fragile structures. Tragically, many of their inhabitants are now dead and more will surely die in the coming days. The past must not be repeated, however, so the Government and donors must focus on rural development that would give people choices and a future outside the capital.

A government accountable to its citizens, public officials ready, willing and able to serve the public, politicians working for the public good and open to compromise, and a better balance between the capital and the rest of the country—all would constitute a revolution in Haiti. The Haiti that emerged from the first revolution in 1804 was badly warped over the ensuing 200 years. The best way to honor those who have died in this latest disaster would be a new revolution creating a new Haiti worthy of their sacrifice.

Aerial view of earthquake damage suffered at the Haiti national palace. Photo Credit: UNDP Global

William O'Neill is the Director of the SSRC's  Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum program.

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Published on: Thursday, January 14, 2010