Though the floodwaters have finally receded, Gonaives—Haiti’s third-largest city—remains buried in 2.5 million cubic meters of mud, one in a long list of miseries plaguing those desperate for relief. Four major storms have ravaged Haiti since August, and recovery and reconstruction are projected to span several years and cost upwards of $400 million. While the international community has committed $145 million in disaster relief—nearly $32 million from the United States alone—the price tag for long-term development assistance could well exceed these early estimates as the extent of the damage becomes clearer. But reconstruction efforts could be moot if Haiti fails to adopt environmentally sustainable development practices.
For years, Haiti has suffered from what Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, has aptly characterized as less-than-natural disasters—incidents that spiral into catastrophes because of Haiti’s destructive development practices, such as deforestation and unchecked urbanization. These destructive development practices have left Haiti in “the midst of a devastating environmental crisis,” said Beth Cypser, acting deputy assistant administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development’s Latin America and Caribbean Bureau, at a 2006 Wilson Center event. For 30 years, Haiti has endeavored to establish itself as the “Taiwan of the Caribbean,” using international investment primarily for urban and industrial development while ignoring the need for improvements in rural areas. The lack of investment in the agricultural sector has exacerbated Haiti’s insecure food supply, leading to higher food prices that have sparked deadly riots, such as those that forced Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis to resign earlier this year. As a result of the focus on industrial development, many unemployed rural workers have migrated to urban centers like Port-au-Prince, Jérémie, and Gonaives in search of manufacturing jobs.
Unfortunately, the cities have been unable to support this influx. According to one U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) senior fellow at a recent meeting that I attended, not for attribution, many rural-to-urban immigrants have no choice but to take up residence in slums—some built on precarious hillsides, others in river deltas. In Port-au-Prince, a majority of slum dwellings lie barely above sea level, making the residents there some of the worst-affected by hurricanes. And with as much as 99 percent of the natural forest stripped from Haiti for fuelwood, hillside slums and cities like Gonaives built up against steep mountainsides can easily wash away.
Today, Haiti faces the challenge of garnering international support for both immediate relief and long-term development. International assistance has largely focused on short-term recovery and reconstruction, without ever addressing the need for Haiti to fundamentally retool its development practices. But, as the USIP senior fellow emphasized, it doesn’t make sense to keep planting crops just to watch them wash away again. What Haiti needs, suggested the senior fellow, is a surge of development that integrates environmental rehabilitation and long-term development goals with current reconstruction operations.
According to a senior World Bank adviser at the same meeting, assistance should focus on transportation and energy infrastructure, reforestation, technical assistance, disaster assistance, and creating smarter safety nets that target the most vulnerable people. At the same time, the adviser emphasized, these efforts should be carried out through the Haitian government to strengthen its legitimacy, and to avoid the dependency associated with development. In addition, Haiti should work closely with neighboring Dominican Republic on regionally appropriate development and disaster-management strategies.