Haiti is turning into a tabula rasa, especially for foreigners, virgin territory on which to imagine earthquake-proof dwellings, decent employment and health and education for all. In other words, a Caribbean nation like no other.
The catch phrase is "build back Haiti better," a project that could take years and perhaps decades. "I personally believe that they are going to be given the opportunity to, in effect, re-imagine their country," former President Bill Clinton, a special UN envoy, told reporters.
Rarely has a country that had so little been so devastated so quickly in the January 12 earthquake. Last year Clinton was optimistic Haiti was slowly moving towards an intelligent development program. (On Wednesday he was appointed UN tzar for international reconstruction efforts)
Light industry was taking hold, donors had promised funds and the government of President René Préval was considered more competent and less corrupt than its predecessors (at least at the upper levels).
The United Nations peacekeepers had restored some semblance of security and helped reconstitute a respected Haiti national police, once the backbone of decades of authoritarian and corrupt rule by the Duvalier family.
One mango at a time
British Professor Paul Collier, whose report last year was read carefully by the United Nations, Clinton and Préval, wants more garment factories, an export system for Haiti's delicious mangoes and the development of a coffee industry, which now goes to neighboring Dominican Republic producers.
That was then. This is now.
James Dobbins, who was the Clinton administration's special envoy to Haiti and is now at the Rand Corp., warns that the emergency aid and the bricks and mortar construction that will follow had to result in a local capacity to sustain those services.
Aid needs to be spent on developing the Haitian government's capacity to govern, to hire well-paid qualified staff and to have an information service, he said. "The Haitian state should be built from the bottom up as well as top down" with assistance to mayors and local councils. And the US Congress should appropriate funds without earmarks and limitations on exactly how the money should be spent.
At the same time Dr. Paul Farmer, a deputy to Clinton in Haiti, in his Senate Foreign Relations committee testimony last week, said:
Haiti will continue to need the contractors, and the NGOs and mission groups, but more importantly we will need to create new ground rules--including a focus on creating local jobs for Haitians, and on building the infrastructure that is crucial to creating sustainable economic growth....."
Farmer, like others, object to US laws that prevent direct investment in the public sector, arguing that "massive public works" are needed to reforest the country, protect watersheds and improve agricultural yield.
Major pledges have been made by the U.S., Canada, Japan, Spain, Brazil, the European Union, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and others. However, in 2009, when Haiti was trying to recover from two hurricanes the previous year, nations pledged $402 million but only $61 million arrived.
The United Nations will probably be the face of the reconstruction effort with the United States doing most of the constructing. Others say the World Bank should lead the effort and that Washington, which occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, should keep a low profile after the emergency phase has subsided.
"We are alive but each of us, like people across the country, have people in our lives who died," said Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassègue, the communication and culture minister. "All the ministries have fallen down. There is not one person in this country without a friend or relative dead."
--Some 3 million Haitians, a third of the total population, lived in Port-au-Prince before the earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 people, injured countless others, left 2 million in need of aid and demolished much of the city. Many children are homeless. Many people had limbs amputated crudely and need treatment. The UN itself suffered heavy casualties when its headquarters at the Christopher Hotel collapsed, losing its chief of mission Hédi Annabi and his deputy Luiz Carlos da Costa. The latest casualty toll was 92 dead, seven unaccounted for and 30 injured.
-- The rainy season is approaching in June and scores of people live in the open air. Kim Bolduc, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Haiti, said tents, especially the sturdy ones used by the US and other armies were needed and time was running out. The Haitian government says it needs 200,000 tents. About 500,000 people have left the capital and the government wants aid and camp sites for them, hoping to discourage them from returning to the devastated city.
--- The UN Development Program is paying 32,000 people in a cash-for-work program and aims to reach 100,000. The workers are paid 180 gourdes (about $4) for six hours' labor to remove rubble from the streets. (Wages in the garment industry, the country's main export, are a dismal $1.72 a day. Parliament last year agreed to raise the minimum wage to $5.14 a day, but Préval, after business objected, suggested $3.25).
-- The government is working out of a police station but has been offered use of the former undamaged American embassy building. Préval, although he was once viewed as a populist, has yet to venture into the crowds camped near his wrecked palace for a kumbaya moment, but is recently visible at news conferences.