Rebuilding Haiti

Eric Farnsworth
March 2010

If ever there was a nation in need of a break, Haiti is it. The Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation has been buffeted for years by disasters, both natural and man-made. This nation with such a proud history, vibrant culture and resilient people has teetered on the brink of economic, political, and environmental collapse for years. It has been sustained only by international charity, including foreign assistance and peacekeepers under United Nations mandate, the export of its citizens and imports of their remittances, and preferential trade and investment programs. Yet a large swath of the population remains destitute.
And that was before the January earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince and other cities, and caused some quarter million deaths.

The earthquake, of historic magnitude, would have caused massive damage and hardship no matter where it hit. Still, its impact was amplified by a dreary commonality across the region: ineffective government unable to fulfill its primary purpose of securing, or at least supporting, its own citizens’ well-being. We’ve seen this movie before, and the resulting impact is often dramatic—as in Managua in 1972, Mexico City in 1985, El Niño-related floods and mudslides, and hurricanes too numerous to count, including Katrina.

In Haiti, building codes were lax and unenforced, payoffs and corruption were rife in the construction industry, and urban planning was non-existent, or at best ineffective. Physical security was outsourced to the U.N. When the quake hit, the city physically collapsed. A government that was ineffective before the earthquake has been stretched beyond its limits.

What possible good can come of this disaster? Only one: Haitians may well decide that this time, they’ve had enough.

Even though the eyes of the world have now moved on from the immediate disaster, rebuilding is a long-term effort requiring long-term commitment. But it would be a doubly tragic disaster for the people of Haiti if their nation is simply restored to the status quo ante. That Haiti didn’t work. There is a significant opportunity in the wake of the earthquake to build Haiti into a modern, economically stable, environmentally-sound nation.

In the first instance, this requires public leadership that puts the good of the nation first, rather than the parochial good of the connected political class. From the outside, it also requires sensitivity to questions of sovereignty that have left Haiti proud but impoverished.

There’s really only one way to establish such a framework for action: via U.N. mandate. Existing U.N. authorities should be expanded, and Haiti be given special status under international law, a virtual enterprise zone of international governance. Reconstruction requires a unified command with a common vision and mandate, as well as authorities for donor nations to conduct humanitarian and reconstruction efforts without fear of being labeled interventionist or imperialistic, as some have already experienced.

Under such mandate, historically relevant democracies including the United States, France, Canada, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and others will be able to come together with key sectors of Haitian society to build a long-term redevelopment plan for Haiti. Political and economic institutions, physical infrastructure, investment and regulatory matters, the environment and clean energy use, social development, and public health, among other issues, would all be considered.

The obligation for each nation participating in a coalition for Haitian rebirth under U.N. mandate would be a long-term commitment to fund relief and reconstruction efforts at a pre-determined level. It would require open markets for goods produced in Haiti, including sugar and sugar-based ethanol. It would offer incentives for investments in Haiti—for example tax relief much like what was done in the U.S. tax code for many years with Puerto Rico. It would encourage consideration of greater Haitian migration abroad. More broadly, Haiti could be a perfect pilot nation for clean energy and global climate change initiatives, much as were discussed on a hemispheric basis at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad a year ago. Other creative ideas could also be explored.

The tragedy of recent events in Haiti cannot be overstated. Still, the international community now has a chance to come alongside Haiti in a meaningful and creative way to assist that nation not just to get back on its feet, but to flourish. It also has a chance to showcase Haiti as an example of how to do international cooperation right.

For the international community, the stakes are high. this time, we have to succeed.

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