Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Bob Maguire’s five steps to help Haiti

As public attention drifts away from the disaster in Haiti, our friend Bob Maguire checks in to offer some informed common sense about how best to help the people there.   By Robert Maguire Best Defense Chief Haiti Correspondent Over the past five decades Haiti has become terribly out-of-balance. Much of this is due to the ...

As public attention drifts away from the disaster in Haiti, our friend Bob Maguire checks in to offer some informed common sense about how best to help the people there.  

By Robert Maguire
Best Defense Chief Haiti Correspondent

Over the past five decades Haiti has become terribly out-of-balance. Much of this is due to the rapid growth of its cities, especially Port-au-Prince and the parallel ferocious neglect of the rest of the country. 

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. Those who perished on January 12th were mostly the poor crowded on marginal land and into sub-standard housing. 

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. Haitian state institutions had virtually collapsed under the weight of generations of bad governance. International balance was off, too. Donors chose to bypass even democratically elected governments and funnel aid funds through foreign-based NGOs that enacted ‘projects’ drawn up outside of Haiti and that lasted only as long as the money did. 

Here are five recommendations to help Haiti restore its balance.

Encourage Decentralization

Some one million people have now fled Port-au-Prince, returning to towns and villages from which they had migrated or where they have family. We must catch up with and get ahead of this movement. 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, we should support an idea proffered by the Haitian Government: reinforce 200 decentralized communities. In them "Welcome Centers" can offer relief in the short term, and cluster health, education, job-creation and investment services that will help the rural economy grow.

Support the Creation of 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 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.

This thinking parallels the creation of such New Deal programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). 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

This is an opportunity to help strengthen Haiti’s public institutions, not to bypass or replace them. International development policies 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 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 Haiti’s grassroots entrepreneurs. Supporting bottom-up capitalism includes:

  • Small loans to entrepreneurs, particularly farmers who will not just produce more food, but will increase employment. Government studies indicate that a 10% increase in man-hours on farms will create 40,000 new jobs.
  • Implementing a conditional cash transfer 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. CCT programs also demonstrate that there are tangible fruits of democratic governance.

Support institutions and leaders who embrace greater inclusion and enact socially-responsible investment strategies.

Factory jobs should be a part of Haiti’s future. Three important points must be kept in mind if this 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. 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 must be mindful that Haitian workers are more than plentiful cheap labor. Secretary of State Clinton said that in Haiti "talent is universal; opportunity is not." Haiti’s renaissance must improve the ‘opportunity environment’ for all.  Its Diaspora offers bountiful evidence of what can be achieved when opportunities are twinned with talent.

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 take steps that will rebalance that country. If rebalanced, Haiti can move forward unequivocally 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.

As public attention drifts away from the disaster in Haiti, our friend Bob Maguire checks in to offer some informed common sense about how best to help the people there.  

By Robert Maguire
Best Defense Chief Haiti Correspondent

Over the past five decades Haiti has become terribly out-of-balance. Much of this is due to the rapid growth of its cities, especially Port-au-Prince and the parallel ferocious neglect of the rest of the country. 

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. Those who perished on January 12th were mostly the poor crowded on marginal land and into sub-standard housing. 

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. Haitian state institutions had virtually collapsed under the weight of generations of bad governance. International balance was off, too. Donors chose to bypass even democratically elected governments and funnel aid funds through foreign-based NGOs that enacted ‘projects’ drawn up outside of Haiti and that lasted only as long as the money did. 

Here are five recommendations to help Haiti restore its balance.

Encourage Decentralization

Some one million people have now fled Port-au-Prince, returning to towns and villages from which they had migrated or where they have family. We must catch up with and get ahead of this movement. 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, we should support an idea proffered by the Haitian Government: reinforce 200 decentralized communities. In them "Welcome Centers" can offer relief in the short term, and cluster health, education, job-creation and investment services that will help the rural economy grow.

Support the Creation of 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 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.

This thinking parallels the creation of such New Deal programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). 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

This is an opportunity to help strengthen Haiti’s public institutions, not to bypass or replace them. International development policies 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 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 Haiti’s grassroots entrepreneurs. Supporting bottom-up capitalism includes:

  • Small loans to entrepreneurs, particularly farmers who will not just produce more food, but will increase employment. Government studies indicate that a 10% increase in man-hours on farms will create 40,000 new jobs.
  • Implementing a conditional cash transfer 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. CCT programs also demonstrate that there are tangible fruits of democratic governance.

Support institutions and leaders who embrace greater inclusion and enact socially-responsible investment strategies.

Factory jobs should be a part of Haiti’s future. Three important points must be kept in mind if this 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. 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 must be mindful that Haitian workers are more than plentiful cheap labor. Secretary of State Clinton said that in Haiti "talent is universal; opportunity is not." Haiti’s renaissance must improve the ‘opportunity environment’ for all.  Its Diaspora offers bountiful evidence of what can be achieved when opportunities are twinned with talent.

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 take steps that will rebalance that country. If rebalanced, Haiti can move forward unequivocally 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.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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