January 18, 2010

After the earthquake, how to rebuild Haiti from scratch

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 12:42 am
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In Haiti, we are facing not only a horrific natural disaster but the tectonics of nature, poverty and politics. Even before last week’s earthquake, roughly half of the nation’s 10 million inhabitants lived in destitution, in squalid housing built of adobe or masonry without reinforcements, perched precariously on hillsides. The country is still trying to recover from the hurricanes of 2008 as well as longtime social and political traumas. The government’s inability to cope has been obvious, but those of us who have been around Haiti for many years also know about the lofty international promises that follow each disaster — and how ineffectual the response has been each time.
In the past two decades, U.S. interventions have done much more harm than good to the Haitian economy. In the early 1990s, Washington thought it did Haiti a favor by imposing a crushing trade embargo to bring about democratization — specifically, the reinstatement of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The embargo destroyed Haiti’s fragile manufacturing industries.
Now it’s time to save Haitian lives by the millions, or watch a generation perish. A serious response will require a new approach. President Obama should recognize that the U.S. government alone lacks the means, attention span and true regard for Haiti that is needed to see this through past the most urgent phase. After the coming weeks, during which U.S. emergency airlift assistance is essential, the effort should be quickly internationalized, in an effective manner that acknowledges U.S. political realities and leverages the help that Washington will give
The recovery fund would focus first on restoring basic services needed for survival. For months to come, medical supplies from abroad should be stockpiled and then distributed in the capital and beyond. Makeshift surgical units and clinical facilities will be essential. Power plants on offshore barges will be needed for electricity until new plants can be constructed. The salaries of public workers — especially teachers, police officers, nurses, reconstruction workers and engineers — must be assured, despite an utter collapse of revenues. Haiti’s currency will need to be backed by international reserves so that the demand for public spending does not create harrowing inflation. The Haiti Recovery Fund, together with a quick-disbursing grant from the International Monetary Fund, should provide the needed reserves and budget financing.
Emergency relief should quickly and seamlessly transform into reconstruction and development. Indeed, if we stop at humanitarian relief alone, Haiti will be back in crisis soon enough, after the next disaster. The first step in this transition is food security: Haiti’s farmers will need seed and fertilizer within weeks if they are to grow food for a destitute country. The displaced urban population will need income support or food transfers to subsist. The World Food Program’s effective food-for-work projects can help feed workers recruited to rebuild roads and buildings.

After the extreme emergency period over the next few weeks, growing more food in Haiti will be far cheaper, more reliable and more sustainable than living on imported food aid. Supplying the farm inputs to Haiti will require more grants — as impoverished farmers have no capacity to buy seeds, fertilizer and small-scale equipment — as well as official aid to help deliver such materials to Haiti’s remote villages.

New shelters must not be makeshift units that would be destroyed by Haiti’s frequent floods, landslides and hurricanes. The country will need a revived and expanded construction industry to produce the brick, reinforced concrete and other vital materials. Private companies, domestic and international, should be contracted to set up operations. China is capable of quickly dismantling a factory, putting it in containers on ships and reconstructing it within weeks in a foreign location. Such efforts are needed immediately. (The asphalt for Liberia’s roads comes from a Chinese factory assembled this way in the capital, Monrovia.) The list of needs goes on; it was very long and urgent even before last week’s calamity.

The Haiti Recovery Fund should be constituted for five years — a suitable period to respond to such a challenge. Electoral politics in Haiti should be suspended for at least one year as well. This is no time for national elections; the people’s survival is the first purpose of politics.

How much money would the Haiti Recovery Fund need? And where should it come from? Here is a rough estimate: Before the earthquake but after the hurricanes, I had calculated an urgent (and unmet) development financing need of $1.4 billion per year for Haiti, up from about $300 million currently. Basic urgent reconstruction costs will add perhaps another $5 billion to $10 billion over the next few years. One can imagine annual disbursements of $2 billion to $3 billion annually over the next five years.

Obama should seek an immediate appropriation of at least $1 billion this year and next for a Haiti Recovery Fund, and ask other countries and international agencies to fill in the rest, not with promises but with cash. The obvious way for Washington to cover this new funding is by introducing special taxes on Wall Street bonuses, utterly unjustified payments that will be announced in the next days.

Haiti will suffer a quick death of hunger and disease unless we act, and the United States will suffer a slow and painful moral death unless we respond to the extreme distress of our neighbors, whom we have neglected for so long and, at times, even put in harm’s way.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the author of “Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet.”

Nick Coleman: Charity alone will never save Haiti

Even before last week’s disastrous earthquake, Haiti was littered with ruins, many of them never-completed testaments to the good intentions of American church groups and charities that have tried for decades to help pull the country out of its misery.

Haiti is where good intentions go to die, and where Americans of good will have seen countless projects — to produce clean water or sustainable agriculture or schools to prepare malnourished children — crumble.

There has been enough charity from Americans. There has not been enough commitment from the American government, which too often has treated its needy neighbor as a pawn or an embarrassment, has meddled in Haitian affairs and has propped up murderous dictators like the Duvalier dynasty that misruled for decades.

I visited Haiti with a St. Paul church group in early 1991 at a moment of great hopefulness: An ex-priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been elected president on a wave of democratic energy that swept away the rich elites and corrupt officials who had enriched themselves while thousands died.

On Palm Sunday morning that year, the newly elected Aristide spoke to a crowd of supporters outside Haiti’s lovely National Palace. A guard, seeing my camera, ushered me up to the front of the cheering throng, just feet from Aristide, who was shouting, in Kreyòl, “Libete ou lanmo!” — liberty or death!

Politics is pretty basic in a country where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not idle concepts but, rather, the most-pressing needs.

“Liberty or death,” of course, was the rallying cry of American patriots and also of the African slaves who revolted against the French colonial system in 1804 and proclaimed Haiti the second Republic in the new world, only to find their hopes of fraternity with the United States dashed: America, like the rest of the white-ruled countries, would not accept a nation run by ex-slaves who had risen up in bloody rebellion.

Haiti was cut off by a world that passed it by and left it to sink into isolation, unimaginable poverty and degradation. Claiming a security interest, the United States sent in the Marines in 1915 and established a racist military occupation that lasted 19 years and left a bittersweet legacy: The Americans built roads and hospitals but brutally crushed a peasant rebellion aimed at securing Haiti’s freedom.

Six months after I saw him speak, Aristide was ousted in a bloody coup, his reform movement crushed. Haiti returned to the killings and corruption of old, while Aristide, in exile, underwent a kind of right-wing-sponsored character assassination in the United States that succeeded at keeping the American government from helping preserve the fledgling democratic movement in Haiti.

Aristide eventually returned, was exiled again and was finally democratically succeeded, but Haiti largely has been ignored again in recent years, left to rely on the kindness of missionaries and nonprofit groups without the resources real change requires. Sadly, it takes a disaster to get our attention.

The United States has assisted U.N. peacekeeping operations and has helped supervise elections, but Haiti now finds itself in its hour of greatest need, the beautiful palace in ruins and the crowded capital of Port-au-Prince in despair. If, for once, the United States can go beyond humanitarian help, there is an opportunity for us to make amends for the sins of the past. President Obama’s offer of $100 million in assistance and the humanitarian relief offered by Washington makes a good start. But only a start.

Haiti doesn’t just need charity. It needs ongoing commitments from its neighbor to the north, a country that has spent billions nation-building in the Middle East while a nation next door remains on starvation diets and is unable to cope with the natural disasters that befall it.

Tracy Kidder, author of “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” one of the indispensable books about Haiti (I also recommend Amy Wilentz’s “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier”), wrote last week: “The ultimate goal of all aid to Haiti ought to be the strengthening of Haitian institutions, infrastructure and expertise.”

The usual argument against helping Haiti’s government — that it is weak, ineffective and corrupt — doesn’t wash, Kidder says. We work with governments like that in Iraq and Afghanistan because it is in our security interest. A self-sufficient Haiti is in our security interest, too. Your house is not safe when your neighbor’s is on fire.

Converting the earthquake-relief effort into the beginning of a new relationship will not just help Haiti get on its feet but will help get it on a path to progress and stability. And that would back the good intentions of American hearts with the strength of American resources. In Haiti, they have a saying: Many hands make the work light.

America’s helping hand is needed now, more than ever.

Nick Coleman is a senior fellow at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy & Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. He can be reached at

The Underlying Tragedy

On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died.

This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services. On Thursday, President Obama told the people of Haiti: “You will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten.” If he is going to remain faithful to that vow then he is going to have to use this tragedy as an occasion to rethink our approach to global poverty. He’s going to have to acknowledge a few difficult truths.

The first of those truths is that we don’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty. Over the past few decades, the world has spent trillions of dollars to generate growth in the developing world. The countries that have not received much aid, like China, have seen tremendous growth and tremendous poverty reductions. The countries that have received aid, like Haiti, have not.

In the recent anthology “What Works in Development?,” a group of economists try to sort out what we’ve learned. The picture is grim. There are no policy levers that consistently correlate to increased growth. There is nearly zero correlation between how a developing economy does one decade and how it does the next. There is no consistently proven way to reduce corruption. Even improving governing institutions doesn’t seem to produce the expected results.

The chastened tone of these essays is captured by the economist Abhijit Banerjee: “It is not clear to us that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control.”

The second hard truth is that micro-aid is vital but insufficient. Given the failures of macrodevelopment, aid organizations often focus on microprojects. More than 10,000 organizations perform missions of this sort in Haiti. By some estimates, Haiti has more nongovernmental organizations per capita than any other place on earth. They are doing the Lord’s work, especially these days, but even a blizzard of these efforts does not seem to add up to comprehensive change.

Third, it is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty. Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.

As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

Fourth, it’s time to promote locally led paternalism. In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.

It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

The late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington used to acknowledge that cultural change is hard, but cultures do change after major traumas. This earthquake is certainly a trauma. The only question is whether the outside world continues with the same old, same old.


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