Guest Post by Johanna Mendelson Forman: From Misery to Poverty? Haiti’s Reconstruction Dilemma


(Photo: United Nations Development Programme’s Photostream)
This is a guest note by Johanna Mendelson Forman. She is a senior associate of the Americas Program and the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Today is the one month mark since a devastating earthquake leveled Port au Prince, a city of close to 2 million people. In the 30 seconds it took to demolish the National Palace, most of the government ministries, and about two-thirds of the houses, Haiti is still a country in extremis.
With over a half a billion dollars in aid already on the ground in the form of humanitarian relief, this poor, but proud nation, is still reeling from losing at least 2 percent of its population. With over 200,000 dead, and the number rising, and with an equal number of citizens injured, the task of rebuilding is hardly a vision, let alone a strategic one. If hope exists it is only to compare what happened in Haiti with the 2004 Tsunami in Southeast Asia. With a similar death toll, and several countries affected, there has been progress in reconstruction, prevention, and even legislation to address responses to natural disaster in Indonesia. Let’s hope that similar types of initiatives arise from this Caribbean tragedy.
Recovery from any disaster is difficult, but for Haiti it will require a complete rethinking of development. If the mantra before the earthquake hit on January 12th was to help Haitians go “from misery to poverty,” it is difficult to find the words that will characterize this attempt to build a new nation. Former President Bill Clinton, now the UN Special Envoy to Haiti, remarked that we must:”build back better.” What will “better” consist of?
In 2004 Haiti was on the verge of state failure after the government of President Bertrand Aristide succumbed to mob violence that forced his departure from office. Haiti found itself once again under the protection of a UN Peacekeeping Operation, MINUSTAH, fourteen years after a U.S. led multinational force had deployed to help monitor the first democratic elections that had put President Aristide in office in 1990.
Even when a democratically elected government returned in 2006 headed by President Rene Preval, Haitians are still living with a peacekeeping force to provide the security that the state remains incapable of sustaining.
Over the last year there had been a feeling of hope and progress. Haiti was emerging from the devastation of the September 2008 natural disasters, 4 hurricanes that destroyed a city and ruined any plans to rebuild the economy. It was this more secure and stable environment, guaranteed by 9,000 UN peacekeepers and police, that attracted over 400 investors led by President Clinton to tout the potential for a public private partnership approach to Haiti.
Economist Paul Collier, who had been recruited by the UN to assess the potential for Haiti’s economic development, suggested that things were brighter given Haiti’s geographic location in a good neighborhood, where the size of the U.S. market was a definite plus in attracting more businesses to invest.
Today Haiti is the scene of one of the largest humanitarian operations in recent history. A $10 billion five year assistance program has been proposed to support Haiti’s recovery. What will this mean in the short term? More of the same? Projects that do not endeavor to sustain gains in development? Will new investments work to decentralize a country whose entire focus has been only on its capital, Port au Prince? Or will this time be different.
President Obama moved swiftly to use all the tools of the U.S. to respond to this earthquake. It has been a true 3-D project: defense, development and diplomacy. By doing so he also provided a sharp contrast to the Bush administration’s weak and insufficient efforts to help New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. What we are really witnessing in this Haiti recovery is a broader demonstration of the Obama policy of engagement, not only in this hemisphere, but with our friends and allies. Yes, a disaster of this size is more than any one nation can handle alone. And if President Obama is true to his commitment to multilateralism then this crisis in Haiti may serve as a platform for fulfilling the promise of the Summit of the Americas of 2009 – partnership not patronage.
Stay tuned for the next episode.
— Johanna Mendelson Forman


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