Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Thinking About a New Haiti

Three weeks after Haiti’s earthquake, the search for survivors has been called off, the TV crews are trickling home, and the celebrity telethon is over — usual signs that the floodwaters of compassion will be ebbing soon. The United States, Canada and other nations, meeting in Montreal last week, vowed that wouldn’t happen. They began to map out a 10-year recovery plan and set the stage for a big donor conference in March.

Leaders there also acknowledged the difficult truth: It will take years of sustained help, and aid alone will never pour the foundation of a new Haiti.

In old Haiti there is still mostly horror. It is a nation of the homeless and maimed. Despite a stunning global surge of aid, many survivors still lack water, food and tents. Thousands sleep outdoors in Port-au-Prince, in terror of aftershocks. Roads, ports, communications — all in terrible shape before — are shattered. Managers and civil servants needed to help run the recovery are dead; the buildings they would run it from are flattened.

And yet there are reasons for optimism in the rubble. Well before the quake, experts like Paul Collier, an Oxford economist who was a special adviser on Haiti to the United Nations, were disseminating sensible proposals for rebuilding Haiti. The quake altered the landscape but not the validity of these ideas.

Here are a few that donor countries and Haitian leaders should take a hard look at in coming weeks:

PROMOTE SELF-SUFFICIENCY Professor Collier has noted that Haiti has considerable economic advantages, like low labor costs and a law that grants its goods preferential access to the United States market. Extending that law and encouraging investments in industries like garment-making and tourism could swiftly create tens of thousands of jobs. Rebuilding and modernizing agriculture to grow staples and export products like coffee and mangoes would mean food, cash and employment.

OPEN UP THE COUNTRYSIDE Dispersing the population beyond overbuilt, overburdened cities, like the now-shattered capital, is a good idea now cloaked in urgency. Haitians need to get out of disaster-prone areas, and well-placed development could enable them to lead sustainable lives in rural areas and new small towns instead of as the huddled, jobless urban poor. They also need help with tree-planting and topsoil restoration projects, which could create jobs and begin to undo the profound environmental damage that has left the countryside so impoverished and vulnerable to natural disasters.

REBUILD (AND MAINTAIN) INFRASTRUCTURE Haiti obviously needs homes, schools, roads, a reliable power system — but it also needs the money to maintain them, instead of the usual practice of building projects and leaving them to rot. Technology offers hope here, too. Instead of waiting for someone to build an expensive, centralized power grid, donors could think more flexibly on a smaller scale, using solar panels and LEDs to provide electricity and light cheaply, portably and quickly.

TAP THE DIASPORA Haitian immigrants in the United States, Canada and elsewhere already send home hundreds of millions of dollars every year. They surely will be sending more, now that the Obama administration has wisely, if belatedly, granted temporary protected status to undocumented Haitians in the United States. Haitians in Canada proposed another excellent idea: government-paid leaves of absence to allow expatriates (employed in government or the private sector) to return and rebuild civil society in their place of birth.

In a country scarred by endemic corruption and waste, relief funds and projects need to be carefully monitored. Those who know Haiti well note that in the years before this latest disaster, civil order had already begun to take root. President René Préval is far more capable than his predecessors, although we wish he would be a lot more visible to his own people and a lot more assertive. Haiti needs strong and honest leadership.

Expert analysts like Jocelyn McCalla, a Haitian-American development consultant, noted an encouraging upswelling of political good will and common purpose after the devastating hurricanes of 2008. This, he says, helps explain why Haitians have endured these horrific weeks with relative calm.

It will take a lot of money, creativity, and vigilance and sustained commitment to rebuild Haiti — from Haitians and from the world. There are smart people thinking about how to do it. And that is a start.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 3, 2010
An editorial on Monday about the Haitian earthquake misspelled the name of a Haitian-American consultant. He is Jocelyn McCalla, not McCallan.

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