Best Defense

Remember Haiti?: It’s that big island near Cuba that no one likes to mention

By Robert Maguire and Robert Muggah Best Defense Haiti bureau chiefs Following last January’s devastating earthquake, Haiti’s people were widely praised for their resilience and ability to spring back from disaster. Yet a year after the quake — as in the decades preceding it — most Haitians are still stuck in impoverished and desperate conditions. ...

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By Robert Maguire and Robert Muggah
Best Defense Haiti bureau chiefs

Following last January’s devastating earthquake, Haiti’s people were widely praised for their resilience and ability to spring back from disaster. Yet a year after the quake — as in the decades preceding it — most Haitians are still stuck in impoverished and desperate conditions. Opportunities to improve their well-being and fulfill their potential are as remote as ever.

The enthusiasm expressed among some to the Jan. 16 return to Haiti of former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier following 25 years of exile in France vividly reflects widespread frustration over the slow pace and limited scale of post-quake recovery efforts. More deeply, it reflects the overall failure since 1986 among outsiders and Haitian leaders to improve social and economic conditions among the country’s long-suffering poor.

Duvalier’s presence is also a grim reminder of how brutal, corrupt, and self-aggrandizing leaders have burdened Haiti historically. In our view, Haiti’s traumatic crises will continue to reoccur unless resulting social, economic, and geographic imbalances are fundamentally changed to allow all Haitians to meaningfully tap their potential. Precisely these points were made in January 2010 by Bill Clinton, the current U.N. special envoy to Haiti, when he stressed the importance of building back Haiti as a whole and not just the quake-ravaged capital.

For decades Haitians have described their nation as composed of two republics — one in Port-au-Prince and the other everywhere else. The "Republic of Port-au-Prince," similar to capital cities in most underdeveloped countries, is the center of decision-making, investment, services and the accumulation of wealth and power, albeit to a dangerous extreme. Over 65 percent of Haiti’s economic activity and 85 percent of its fiscal revenue are concentrated there.

The rest of the country is a dangerously ignored, impotent, destitute backwater. Even Haiti’s secondary cities have more in common with the rural hinterland than Port-au-Prince. With its concentration of education, employment, and infrastructure, the capital is a magnet for rural emigrants. For decades more than 75,000 desperately poor people have arrived in the capital each year.

Between 1975 and 2010 Haiti experienced one of the most dramatic explosions of urbanization in the western hemisphere after the metropolitan area expanded from about 575,000 to roughly 3 million — one third of the country’s population. Like slums across Latin America and the Caribbean, the poor came seeking opportunity in the capital but were instead packed tightly together in coastal mudflats, river floodplains, ravines and steep hillsides. More than half of them earned less than $1 a day. 


All of these dire facts were well known in the months following the quake, even as cash, goods, and relief workers poured into the country. And while lives have been saved and modest recovery efforts undertaken, this has not served as a springboard to economic growth, poverty alleviation, or the rebalancing so desperately needed. Haiti will only move forward after its political and economic elites, and their partners in the international community, find ways of assisting the country’s poor to cast off their grinding, debilitating poverty by matching talent with opportunity.

It is worth recalling the ground-breaking nature of the Haitian government’s internationally backed poverty alleviation and economic growth plans in 2007 and 2009. They advocated decentralized investment in education, healthcare, infrastructure, job creation, environmental rehabilitation and the productive capacity of the long-neglected agrarian economy. The focus on decentralization — also called ‘deconcentration’ — was intended to rebalance Port-au-Prince as the sole preserve of decision-making, investment, services, and the accumulation of wealth and power. 

These national development plans clearly demonstrated how the rest of Haiti — where some two-thirds of the population resides — was profoundly neglected. What is more, the government’s post-quake recovery and growth plans reemphasized decentralization as a key objective, calling also for manufacturing, agricultural, and tourism ‘growth poles’ beyond the capital as a means of stimulating economic recovery and livelihoods. International donors responded favorably by pledging close to $10 billion in support of the plan, and optimism abounded that the country would finally be built back better.

So why is Haiti stuck? Why has the tyrant Duvalier returned to a country that has not moved forward since he was deposed?  The problem seems not to be one of conceptualization but rather execution.

On the international side, slow disbursements and an approach that bypasses local and national authorities inhibits needed coordination. Donors continue to condone a "projectized" approach towards development that yields unsustainable results and inhibits long-term strategic thinking. Moreover, the Haitian Interim Recovery Commission — a hybrid mechanism designed to coordinate and prioritize post-quake investment — is still in first gear. In the meantime, timid decision-making by Haitian political leaders, the self-serving instincts of the elite, and the exclusion of poor people’s voices in policy-making restrain progress.

Despite the fact that Port-au-Prince has captured most of the post-quake attention and resources, there are some signs that movement toward meaningful decentralization is emerging. But so far the examples are sparse: a teaching hospital in central Haiti; a garment factory zone in a secondary city, and road building in rural areas are among them. For these green shoots to multiply and lead to a real harvest there needs to be massive investment nationwide in people-centered programs building human capital and expanding entrepreneurship.

In January 2010 we recommended a "New Deal" for Haiti, calling for a national program of civic service — as articulated in Haiti’s constitution — to put hundreds of thousands of Haitians to work rebuilding their country, rendering services to their countrymen and women, and gaining transferable skills. Some donors such as France, Norway and the Clinton Foundation have recognized the importance of mobilizing Haiti’s youth, but to date their efforts are fragmented and modest at best. Support of a unified Haitian-led national program is needed. If efforts to mobilize youth and the unemployed for civic service are coupled with investment credits for small and micro enterprises throughout Haiti, along with a national conditional cash transfer program tied to improved education and health care, Haiti will move forward rapidly, deposed dictators will stay away, and the trauma of the past will recede.

Without enacting a meaningful and balanced plan to build back better, however, talent will not be matched with opportunity. Real strides among all Haitians toward prosperity will not be taken. And it will be very likely that Haiti’s people will be stuck in the dead end of endless resilience.

Robert Maguire is Associate Professor of International Affairs at Trinity Washington University and Chairman of the Haiti Working Group at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. Robert Muggah, based at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, is a principal of the SecDev Group and advises multilateral and bilateral organizations on Haiti’s recovery.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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