Today a year ago, on January 12, 2010 at 04:53:10 PM the Caribbean Nation of Haiti was struck by an earthquake that measured 7.0 magnitude on the Richter Scale and further destroyed the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
In the wake of the Haiti earthquake, former president Bill Clinton wrote in TIME that “given the right organization and support, Haiti could become a self-sustaining and successful country.” That hasn’t happened and as a former 25 year long resident of the Caribbean, I could have said: I told you so. But that is neither here nor there. Despite the best intentions of many around the world, Haiti is still a basket case, and will remain so for many years to come. I traveled to Haiti in the dark days of Papa Doc and Baby Doc and witnessed first hand the bestiality of the Ton Ton Macoute in the early days; I worked with The Haitian Telephone Company as recent as 2002.
In my opinion Haiti is a bigger threat to the US, at least on a human level, than Cuba ever was, because it never got a chance since they acquired independence in 1804.
While living in the Virgin Islands and St.Maarten I had the pleasure of employing several Haitians, which I could depend on, even in the darkest days after Hurricane destruction. Great people, great work attitude and smart – street smart. Unfortunately those are the Haitians that have left the country, often calling for their relatives after they have established a life in another Caribbean territory. The good of what is left in Haiti, is mostly controlled by what the French call “crapule”. The country has absolutely no middle class, which means that democracy is unsupported and that any financial injection ends up in the hands of the super rich who control the political culture, not leaving a penny for the super poor.
No wonder therefore that only 5% of the 675 million cu. ft. (19 million cu meters) of rubble in Port-au-Prince has been removed from the streets. At least 1 million Haitians still live in tents. A preventable cholera epidemic has claimed more than 2,500 lives. In a recent report it was concluded that never in Haitian history has “there been so much unemployment and destitution and dependence on outsiders.” My question is, compared to what and according to whom?
And now the West is wondering what went wrong? How did such a huge outpouring of foreign assistance – donor countries have pledged some $11 billion – manage to accomplish so little?
As always when things go wrong, observers affixing blame for Haiti’s failures tend to fall into one of two camps: those who point fingers at the armies of foreign NGOs working in Haiti; and those who fault the Haitians themselves. In that respect, the Haitian tragedy reflects a broader debate in foreign policy circles about the relationship between aid and development. And even more important is what it says about how Americans and other donor countries should think about their responsibilities to the rest of the world.
For the anti-NGO camp, Haiti is a case study in the hypocrisy of the global relief bandwagon that descends as a cloud of locusts on poor countries victimized by wars, famine and in Haiti’s case, natural disasters. I am with those critics who accuse humanitarian-aid groups of using misery to validate their existence, spending funds inefficiently and creating a culture of dependence among the people they are supposed to help. Now mind you, I’m not talking about the intentions of those who grab a plane and physically go there and help wherever they can, even though their only accomplishment is often that they feel better about themselves, but frustrated about the actual results of their work.
All of those problems play out double in Haiti.
Only around 10% of the funds committed to Haiti’s recovery have actually been spent there. Aid contracts intended to provide work for Haitians have benefited foreign companies instead. A review by the Associated Press found that out of 1,500 U.S. contracts given out in the last year, only 20 went to Haitian-owned companies. Even before the quake, Haiti was home to more foreign aid workers than any other country on earth – and yet the presence of 12,000 NGOs failed to prevent a cholera epidemic that medical experts believe should never have occurred. One adviser to Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told the Wall Street Journal that the NGO community has “infantilized” the country and usurped responsibilities better left to the Haitian government. Of course the smart retort is “What Haitian government?” If you belong to the “blame Haiti” camp, you’re less likely to ascribe the post earthquake mess to outsiders than to the country’s defective political culture.
In recent years, development economists have sought to explain why some countries lift themselves out of poverty while others chronically underachieve. Stable, transparent institutions – like police, courts and banks – are critical to the success of poor nations. But Haiti’s long history of disarray has left it with few institutions worthy of trust. For those who emphasize such internal factors, Haiti wouldn’t be saved even if every dollar of aid money were spent and every NGO disappeared tomorrow. Until the country’s political class proves it can govern without corruption and political favoritism, Haiti’s people will continue to suffer.
Ultimately, development does require the kind of responsible local leadership that doesn’t appear anywhere on the Haitian horizon. And yet numerous formerly poor, under-performing countries – from Indonesia to Mozambique to Malaysia to Ghana – have achieved a degree of stability and prosperity that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Haiti’s only slightly bright spot on the horizon is that a number of Haitians who have made it elsewhere in the world are now slowly taking jobs back to their mother country. It’s not much, but it’s a start that may ultimately undermine the greed that is part of the current political culture
Early last year I wrote a story that ties in the Chinese relief efforts with the expansion of the Panama Canal, the access to container storage facilities in Haiti and expanding Chinese influence in the Caribbean Territories while another story highlighted the price Haiti is paying for corruption. Pretty much a wasted effort, if I see how almost $10 billion dollars is getting wasted on a 1 Billion dollar effective aid amount.
All of which means that it’s actually impossible for the US to politically give up on Haiti. As the Russians affected Cuba, the Chinese may use Haiti in a similar manner. Just a thought for those who want to listen.
Since the Marshall Plan after World War II, U.S. policymakers have viewed foreign aid as a tool for advancing the country’s security interests. The public, however, sees it in moralistic terms. But in times of fragile economics American largesse becomes a finite asset. I don’t think Bernanke will print dollars to support the morality of Haiti’s predicament until the country becomes a security risk to the US.
Trying in vain to alleviate the most desperate situations will inevitably mean shortchanging individuals, societies and governments that are better positioned to succeed. Maybe it’s time for the US to adjust policies to act where it can do the most good, rather than fight wars that are impossible to justify or win for that matter.