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Hope Admist Devastation: Towards a New Haitian State

The devastating earthquake that has destroyed Haiti’s capital has aggravated the already catastrophic economic and political conditions that have characterized the island’s recent history.  As a Haitian put it: “tout ayiti kraze”—the whole country is no more.  Beyond the utter terror, pain, and loss that is overtaking the population, and the horrifying cries for help from under piles of rubble, the country is in ruin.  While it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the hellish pictures of lifeless bodies—young and old—Haitians and all people of good will must immediately contribute to the country’s rebuilding lest famine, disease, and chaos set in.  In spite of their strong sense of nationalism, Haitians will have to accept the reality that at this time, it is only the international community, and the United States in particular, that has the means to rescue the country from catastrophe.  The government is an empty shell, the United Nations virtually decapitated, and local non-governmental organizations basically impotent.

This immense tragedy portends the danger of a Hobbesian war of all against all, but it may paradoxically be an opportunity to create a new and more democratic society in which all Haitians treat each other as equal citizens.  In fact, the earthquake has become the cruelest equalizer; while it is clear that the small, well-off minority will extricate itself more easily from this crisis than the poor majority, death and devastation are affecting all irrespective of class or color.  In the midst of this cataclysm, Haitians may well acquire a new sense of solidarity and citizenship to supplant the zero-sum game politics that have characterized the country’s history.  Facing disaster, Haitians may finally understand that a better future requires the demise of the old ways of governing and producing.  A more inclusive social pact between the privileged few and the poor majority may well rise from the ghastly dust of the earthquake.  While the travail of past history does not bode well for such an outcome, the earthquake is compelling Haiti to enter unchartered territory.  Hope may not be completely dead.

If Haiti is to recover and extricate itself from its past predicament, it will need the massive help of the international community.  But once the rescue and relief operations are done and once the immediate shock has subsided, the international community will have to change its traditional methods of assistance.  It will have to concentrate its resources on helping Haitians build a coherent and functioning state.  Such a strategy entails both facilitating the development of an effective public bureaucracy and channelling most foreign assistance through governmental institutions.  In fact, Haitians should call on the foreign community to use this moment of reconstruction to expand state capacity and create a competent public service.  For instance, the future rebuilding of the capital city, whether in its current site or elsewhere, should be an opportunity to create governmental cadres of urban planners and engineers.  The objective is therefore the building of state capacity instead of continuing to favor the development of what is known in Haiti as “La République des ONGs,” the NGO Republic.

More than 10,000 NGOs have been doing “development work” for the past three or four decades.  They have been the privileged partner of international financial institutions channeling assistance to the country.  While they may be well meaning, they are not the engine that will generate self-sustained growth in Haiti.  Uncoordinated among themselves and having no national coherence, they are a palliative agent in the struggle against poverty.  The earthquake has demonstrated their obdurate limitations.     Thus, instead of pumping its resources into NGOs, the international community must shift its priorities and concentrate on helping Haitians build durable state institutions.  While the earthquake had cataclysmic consequences for the Port-au-Prince area and the southern town of Jacmel, it left the rest of the country relatively unscathed but strikingly incapable of offering any relief to the capital.  The utter lack of a national emergency system even after the devastating hurricanes of two years ago symbolizes the absence of a responsible state.  In fact, government officials have tended to abdicate their responsibilities to NGOs and the UN; not surprisingly, Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime confessed that it was the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) that had “traditionally coordinated relief efforts.”

The emasculation of the state is no accident, however; it is partly the consequence of the neo-liberal regime implanted in the country by the major international financial institutions (IFIs).  By advocating the withdrawal of the state from its social and regulating obligations, and by promoting the supremacy of the market, this regime has contributed to an economic, political, and social disaster.  The emasculated state has left the population unprotected from the harsh realities of poverty, unemployment and the vagaries of nature.  Moreover, the IFIs’ economic plans stressing the development of export-oriented urban enclaves dependent on ultra cheap labor, have contributed to the utter neglect of agricultural production as well as the inevitable population exodus to the cities.  Port-au-Prince, built for 250,000 people, has now about 3 million inhabitants most living in poverty and squalor.  The earthquake’s massive destruction has brought to light the dangers of such a development strategy.  In the medium and long term the international community should promote an alternative model based on the protection and reinvigoration of domestic production that satisfies basic needs, a model that privileges the development of the rural areas.  The earthquake has paradoxically accelerated this process by generating a reverse exodus; masses of Port-au-Princians are now marching back to their villages to escape from the disaster.  This spontaneous evacuation is an opportunity to create the necessary incentives and infrastructure for permanent and viable settlements of productive peasants.  Such a strategy would stop obscene class and regional inequalities from growing further and provide a sense of national cohesion.

It is difficult, however, to contemplate an increase in domestic food production without a major policy-shift from the neo-liberal regime imposed on Haiti by the major international financial institutions. The country cannot afford to continue its disastrous economic liberalization lest its domestic economic base disintegrate completely.  Indeed, the collapse of domestic food production—particularly rice—can be traced back to the policies of trade liberalization introduced in the mid-1980s and 1990s under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.  These policies have resulted in the massive reliance on imported food and the total neglect of the rural agricultural sector.  In fact, in 2006/07 the entire budget of the Ministry of Agriculture was a measly US$1.5 million, a figure that contrasts sharply with the US$69 million spent on the UN World Food Program (WFP).  Instead of reconstructing its rural sector and promoting domestic food production, Haiti has remained a country of malnourished and hungry people alarmingly dependent on external assistance and charity.

If Haiti is to avoid an unending dependence on the international community for its very survival, it must place the state at the center of any strategy of reconstruction.  The state plays a fundamental role in organizing social life and is the cornerstone of public as well as private production.  What Haiti requires is not nation-building, but state-building.  This is especially the case if the country is to build the infrastructure and enhance the life chances of those whose very existence has been threatened by the earthquake and other recent natural disasters.  While NGOs and other forms of private assistance might offer some immediate and needed relief to those without shelter and food, only the state can provide collective protection and create the conditions for self-sustaining growth.  The creation of a new and responsible state does not imply massive centralization nor the crushing of spontaneous forms of citizens’ organizations, but rather harnessing this spontaneity and giving it the coherence and means to succeed.  In fact, the state must nurture and institutionalize the peaceful resilience and dignified strength that the overwhelming majority of the population has shown throughout this catastrophe.  This behaviour in the face of utter adversity is a hopeful sign that Haitians can learn to live in solidarity and that the extreme divide across class, color, and gender can be bridged.  This task, however, requires a responsible state with the capacity to generate more equitable life-chances, more civil relationships among citizens, and more stable politics.  If a viable, accountable state were to emerge, the earthquake’s senseless destruction may in fact become the cruel birth pangs of a new and resilient Haiti.

Robert Fatton Jr. is the Julia Cooper Professor of Politics and Associate Dean for graduate programs at the University of Virginia. He was born and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and is the author of several books, including Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy.

More on Haiti at The Immanent Frame, the Council's blog on secularism, religion, and the public sphere.

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Published on: Wednesday, January 20, 2010