David Rothkopf

When do we pull the plug on a country?

What if the idea of Haiti as a country simply won’t work? They have been trying for two centuries. Even before the horrific tragedy of the earthquake six months ago, Haiti festered. The economy has averaged one percent growth per year for the past four decades (pdf). Haiti’s per capita income places it 203rd among ...

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

What if the idea of Haiti as a country simply won’t work?

They have been trying for two centuries. Even before the horrific tragedy of the earthquake six months ago, Haiti festered. The economy has averaged one percent growth per year for the past four decades (pdf). Haiti’s per capita income places it 203rd among all nations. In purchasing power parity terms, it is $1,300 per year, putting it roughly on the same level as Uganda, Burkina Faso and Mali. In nominal terms, the per capita number is only $790, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere by far — despite Haiti’s proximity and ties to the richest economy on earth and aid flows and commitments nearing $10 billion since 1990.

This is not a new phenomenon. The Haitian experiment as a free republic that began with the successful slave rebellion of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines in the first years of the 19th century has by many measures been a failure since the beginning. Today, Haiti’s per capita GDP is less than a sixth that of the country with which it shares the island of Hispaniola and therefore many characteristics and circumstances, the Dominican Republic.

Haiti has had dictatorships and democracy, external rule and global assistance. Throughout its history, its governments have failed virtually all the most rudimentary tests of administrative or policy competence. It has seen almost three dozen coups, averaging one every six years or so. Haiti ranks 126th in the world on education expenditures. Roughly half the population is illiterate. Something like 8 out of 10 college graduates emigrate. The country has only the most rudimentary telecommunications, power generation or transport infrastructure outside of Port au Prince. The majority of people didn’t have access to basic health care even before January’s earthquake. The leadership has consistently been viewed as corrupt, and its elites have consistently been viewed as out of touch with its people. The top one percent of the population control almost 50 percent of the country’s assets. It is almost alone amongst the nations of the Caribbean to be unable to take advantage of the potential for tourism. Deforestation and ill-considered agricultural practices have decimated agri-business on the island-with a few notable exceptions. Manufacturing has never taken in a meaningful way despite much vaunted efforts to manufacture baseballs or clothing.

The human tragedy of Haiti is unspeakable. The promise of its people remains great.

But what if the concept of Haiti is the problem? Haitians speak French and Creole as a vestige of a colonial era that began its decline over two centuries ago. That the island is divided between French and Spanish speaking halves is yet another consequence of European historical caprice. The country’s people are descendants of slaves who were torn from Africa and subjected to inhumane treatment as a consequence of a despicable and fundamentally immoral economic model that was recognized as intolerable and unsustainable also decades before the country’s founding.

In other words, the country has been shaped in many important ways by conditions that are virtually irrelevant to the modern world. Which raises the question: When does the statute of limitations run out on the idea behind a country’s existence?

That’s not to say that a people’s right to self-determination ever expires. Rather it is to say that there may well be a time that it is in the interest of the people of a country like Haiti and its neighbors to determine that the experiment has failed. I realize this is an incrediblly inflammatory notion. It is certainly neither offered lightly nor without regard for the Haitian people, for whom I have the greatest respect, admiration and affection.

Rather it is to say, how much longer can the world write checks for billions, undertake initiatives doomed to failure, deal with governments gutted either by circumstance (the earthquake) or incompetence (virtually every other Haitian government)? There is a cost to the Haitian experiment and of course, it is not just measured in the outlays of international institutions or NGOs. Its more painful toll is measured in the costs to the Haitian people — either during natural disasters (and hurricane season will soon come to a nation which currently has a million people homeless or housed in flimsy tent camps) or as a consequence of the year-in and year-out inability of the government to educate them, raise their standard of living, create new jobs, mine some sort of hope from the despair of the country’s shanty-towns and villages that are dirt poor but filled with vibrant, energetic people.

Should nations that can’t stand alone consolidate with neighbors? Should they break into different pieces? Should they develop different relationships with large countries with whom they share affinities? Should they be able to enter periods of protected restructuring like companies in bankruptcy? Should they, at the very least, start to question more seriously the underlying concepts that have, after decades or centuries, left them chronically poor, uncompetitive, unstable?

We treat the "right to nation" like it were a theological construct. But countries, like companies, like families, like churches, like all human organizations are just conceptual structures designed to produce a better life for the people within them. If all evidence suggests that the concept is flawed in some key way, we need to ask: When does it become time to reconsider, reinvent and explore new avenues that might better serve those who currently suffer without real hope of change? We can all think of other countries that might benefit themselves and the global community at large from such reconsideration.

Does this mean we should stop trying to help Haiti rebuild or to re-emerge from the current disastrous conditions? Of course not. Indeed, given the amount of dithering around helping Haiti that has occurred over the past six months, decency demands we redouble our efforts … and then some. It is appalling that the oversight commission has only met once and has yet to appoint an executive director. It is appalling that the government of Haiti — devastated as it has been — has been so devoid of leadership. The country can emerge stronger if the world unites to help it as we must.

No, the reason I raise the issue is that after decades of watching Haiti (and many other countries) struggle with resource limitations, cultural obstacles, competitive disadvantages and chronic crises, I just think it is worth asking whether we need to be bolder in our approach to finding solutions and to truly ask ourselves what we would and could do if we sought to truly serve the people of these countries rather than the ideas of long dead founders, the consequences of long-forgotten geopolitical twists and turns or the objectives of elites who benefit from old ideas that no longer benefit anyone other than the few.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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