Why Haiti Needs a National Dialogue
Four years after a devastating earthquake, Haiti remains a mess. It's time to bring Haitians from all walks of life into a national conversation about the country's future.
Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer report, "Escaping the Crisis Trap: New Options for Haiti," produced by the Legatum Institute and the Institute for State Effectiveness.
On the afternoon of January 12, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Shoddy construction compounded the scale of the devastation; many buildings collapsed on their occupants. Government figures put the dead at over 300,000, with as many injured, in a city of 2.5 million. Overnight, more than 1.3 million people — nearly a tenth of Haiti’s population — were homeless. The overall damage estimates amounted to $7.9 billion, 120 percent of Haiti’s 2009 GDP. The aftermath brought immediate, extreme challenges: 40 percent unemployment, widespread hunger, and frequent disease outbreaks caused by poor sanitation.
The international response was instantaneous and generous. Donor nations pledged $5 billion in short-term aid and $10 billion over the long term. They also committed to work through government mechanisms to build the country’s capacity for self-sufficiency. Four years on, their efforts have unquestionably yielded progress: 90 percent of the homeless have been resettled, 80 percent of the rubble has been cleared, and joblessness continues to decline. There is even some promise of new foreign investment in Haiti.
Yet the international effort’s results have fallen far short of the expectations of both Haitians and donor nations. Unemployment and food insecurity are still prevalent in Haiti. One hundred thousand people continue to live in squalid camps characterized by poverty, cholera epidemics, and sexual violence toward women. (The photo above features two boys who live in a camp for earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince.) Haiti remains the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with a per capita income of $777.10 — a fraction of what their Dominican neighbors earn.
Moreover, progress toward self-sufficiency remains slow. The training of a new national police force is not advancing fast enough to stem the current reliance on U.N. troops for security. This cultivates the sense among ordinary Haitians that they are an occupied nation. The Haitian government still depends on donor assistance and remittances from abroad for nearly all of its revenue.
Instead of working to rebuild the country’s long-dysfunctional government, as they committed to do after the earthquake, donor nations and aid organizations fell into a trap that we refer to as the "sovereignty paradox." Unable or unwilling to trust government institutions as reliable partners in their aid operations, NGOs and their funders programmed around them, creating parallel administrative structures that effectively undermined Haiti’s government and alienated its people. This disappointment provides an opportunity for Haitians and their partners to pause, regroup, and set the agenda for the future. We accordingly call for the creation of a "national discussion" involving individuals and groups, especially young people, throughout the country. It would aim to take stock of Haiti’s considerable assets and generate grassroots pressure to transform the Haitian political and governmental system.
The tiny island nation’s troubles extend far back into history: Originally claimed for the Spanish crown in 1492, Haiti was subsequently colonized by the French. In 1804, Haiti declared independence from France, constituting the only successful slave revolt mounted in the Americas. An ensuing succession of chaotic governments vied for control of Haiti well into the 20th century. Despite several attempts at participatory elections, democratic rule proved elusive. Corrupt and wealthy elites maintained their power, backed by thuggish security forces. Meanwhile, most Haitians lacked the most basic access to justice, education, or health care.
Haiti seemed poised for fundamental change in 1991, when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, became its first democratically elected head of state. The military and police structure resisted change, however, and seven months into his presidency, the military overthrew Aristide. He returned to Haiti under the aegis of the United Nations and Bill Clinton’s administration in 1994. Since then, a pattern of successive elections, ouster, deadlock, and intervention have reduced government into more of a revolving door than a platform for meaningful change.
In Haiti, political office has always been the main and often only means of upward mobility. Incumbents resort to any means to secure their inherently precarious political positions — including violence. A narrow, kleptocratic elite has captured key positions in government agencies and civil society organizations. As a result, neither represents nor caters to the interests of the majority of the country: the poor. Few Haitians see elections as having any effect on their lives.
Hindered by weak, dysfunctional public institutions, Haiti has been unable to create the basic conditions for private-sector growth: reliable market regulations, transparent property rights, a secure banking system, etc. Without growth, poor Haitians lack opportunity, and the Haitian government lacks a tax base to use to wean itself off foreign aid.
Donors complain about the Haitian government’s lack of accountability, but they themselves set a poor example of successful finance management and transparency. The U.N. agencies, NGOs, and contractors have yet to publish accounts of financial expenditure that are readily available to Haitian citizens. They waste time and money on duplicating inefficient projects because they fail to coordinate with one another or with local governments. Meanwhile, they are complicit in the siphoning off of significant foreign-aid dollars for favored NGO and U.N. contractors. Only 10 percent of the $6.04 billion in funding donated between 2010 and 2012 went to the Haitian government, and less than 0.6 percent went to Haitian organizations and businesses. By circumventing Haitian institutions in the effort to deliver aid, the donor community missed an opportunity to use its resources to reform the institutions themselves.
Though the situation in Haiti remains dire, the country could build upon its considerable assets to move away from aid dependency. The discovery of gold and nickel deposits holds the promise of new jobs and significant government revenues. A 2010 trade agreement with the United States provides favorable import access for Haitian textiles. The country has barely begun to exploit its potential for tourism, an industry central to the economies of other Caribbean countries. There is also considerable growth potential in the Haitian agricultural, construction, and telecommunications sectors. Taking advantage of these assets requires the donor community to use its resources in ways that promote Haitian self-sufficiency. For example, in the massive post-earthquake rebuilding efforts, NGOs have tended to give construction contracts to Dominican firms rather than taking a chance on less-experienced Haitian firms. Haiti also requires better-functioning government institutions and legislation to advance reform, such as well-framed mining laws to guard against corruption and rent-seeking.
The first step is to establish conditions for a national dialogue that would cut across traditional class, party, and geographical lines, giving voices outside the usual political elites an opportunity to participate in shaping the national agenda. Individuals who truly represent Haiti’s diversity can collaborate to develop a shared vision for their country’s future. This vision would endure beyond any single elected government or charismatic leader — providing an overarching benchmark by which Haitians can hold their government accountable. National dialogues have already helped to undergird political and economic reforms in many countries, including Chile, Guatemala, Peru, and Mexico.
The process should start with Haiti’s young. Half of Haiti’s 10 million people are under 25, and it is critical that a national dialogue should consider what they want their country to look like in 15 to 20 years; this will determine the dialogue’s power to drive Haiti’s future. Effective education is critical to cultivating a new generation of leaders. Today, more than half of Haiti’s population is illiterate. The country’s overall education statistics are among the worst in the Western Hemisphere. All too often, low-income countries focus solely on primary education — but this is not enough to give the next generation the technical know-how in science, agriculture, education, and commerce that it needs to drive the country forward.
In the short term, the government can draw upon the talents of the 1 million strong Haitian diaspora. Returning Haitians could also help to mentor the next generation of leaders. They can also share their knowledge on how other countries used remittances to drive economic activity and boost employment, such as through home loans, construction loans, or investment in small business and education.
This national dialogue must identify and prioritize programs to promote growth and skills development and address entrenched problems: poverty, unemployment, failing infrastructure, and weak institutions. These problems can be solved, but Haiti’s government must unlock its potential to overcome them.