After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, many were excited at the prospect of seeing Haiti “build back better.” Five years later, not much has changed. This article discusses how aid organizations’ failure to funnel aid through the Haitian government played a major role in this squandered opportunity.
Click HERE for the original article.
A march around the institutions
In future disasters the West should not treat the victims or the government like bystanders
January 17, 2015
FEW countries have suffered an earthquake so devastating, or have been less prepared for such a calamity. The quake that struck Haiti on January 12th 2010 killed perhaps 200,000 people—no one is sure how many—left 1.5m homeless and caused economic damage equivalent to 120% of the country’s GDP. A cholera epidemic compounded the misery. These disasters called forth the biggest-ever outpouring of humanitarian relief, worth some $9.5 billion in the first three years after the quake. The well-wishers vowed, in the words of Bill Clinton, who helped co-ordinate their early efforts, to “build back better”. Yet five years later, the country is little better off than it was before the disaster—and in some ways it is worse.
The most visible devastation has largely been cleared away. Only about 85,000 people are still stuck under plastic in displacement camps. But many of the rest have moved to makeshift dwellings in slums without sanitation. Port-au-Prince, the overcrowded capital of an over-centralised country, is more jammed than ever. If another earthquake hits, the death toll might be even higher. Corruption, shoddy infrastructure and political instability discourage private investment, which Haiti desperately needs to bring down unemployment and raise its pitiful wages. A ferocious battle between the president, Michel Martelly, and the opposition came to a head on January 12th, when parliament’s mandate expired (see article). This leaves Mr Martelly free to govern by decree, which will do nothing to reassure Haitians or investors.
How did so many humanitarians bearing so much cash accomplish so little? The failure to “build back better” contains lessons for those who would rush to help when disaster strikes an impoverished country.
Haiti before the quake, though not quite a failed state, was a fragile one. A tortured history has stunted its institutions. It took a slave revolt and payment of crippling reparations to free Haiti from France. America marched in to enforce payment of debts in 1915 and did not fully withdraw until 32 years later. Many senior officials died in the quake that flattened the capital in 2010, further enfeebling the state.
But the rescuers did little to build up Haiti’s capacity to govern itself. Less than 10% of spending for relief and recovery went through government agencies. That is chiefly because many officials were corrupt and obstructive. The government demanded big fees to allow in medicines, vehicles and other relief supplies, for example. Local NGOs received even less. Foreign aid agencies set up a logistics compound where they held meetings in English. That helped them co-ordinate with one another but left Haitian organisations in the cold.
This spurning of Haiti’s institutions came at a high cost. Eager to impress donors at home, aid agencies built clinics, but the government was left without money to pay doctors and nurses. Foreign contractors saw far more of their money than did local businesses. The mistrust of officialdom was understandable, but experience in other poor countries shows that it is possible to funnel money through governments while strengthening their ability to monitor how it is spent.
It could have been better
“Non-traditional” donors such as Venezuela did not circumvent Haiti’s government. Some of the money from its PetroCaribe programme, which lets participants buy oil with credit on subsidised terms and invest the profits from reselling it, was usefully spent on infrastructure. But this encouraged Haiti to accumulate debt. Should Venezuela, whose economy is suffering from the slump in oil prices, withdraw its subsidy, Haiti now risks disaster. The country needs grants, not more debt.
The progress from being a fragile state to becoming a functional one is inevitably slow. The World Bank reckons that even the fastest reformers require 15-30 years to move from Haiti’s level of institutional development to Ghana’s. Yet today’s political crisis suggests that Haiti may be moving in the wrong direction. Outsiders can do little to stabilise democracy in the country. But the 2010 tragedy could have been an opportunity to work through its institutions rather than around them, making them stronger. Unfortunately, Haiti’s friends did not make the most of it.
Click HERE for the original article.