Nearly two months after the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake
in Port-au Prince, Haiti, the country still needs assistance to provide basic healthcare and shelter, in addition to rebuilding Haiti’s economy, government, and institutions. As the international community and NGOs make the transition from emergency disaster relief to long-term reconstruction and capacity-building efforts, donor coordination and long-term commitment are crucial. Recently, on Capitol Hill, a panel of experts organized by Wilson Center on the Hill
and the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program
discussed Haiti’s continuing problems and challenges.
Johanna Mendelson Forman, a senior associate for the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, stressed that progress in Haiti will take time—perhaps five years to rebuild and 10 years to see positive economic growth. This timeline is often frustrating for donors—including Congress and U.S. citizens—who want to see immediate results, she noted. Nevertheless, Mendelson Forman discounted the myth that “because Haiti is a weak state it is not a sovereign state,” and emphasized that developing and strengthening the Haitian government remains necessary.
She observed that the post-earthquake efforts in Haiti have been different from previous United Nations interventions, particularly in terms of the Latin American community’s involvement. Brazil, for example, is leading relief operations. Other Latin American countries—including Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic—have committed to promoting a stable and secure Haiti. Here Mendelson Forman noted a new partnership initiated by the Dominican and Haitian governments. “[Dominican officials] understand that they are doomed if Haiti is doomed,” she said. “As members of the international community, it is our job to foster that reconciliation.”
Costs Are Rising
Andrew Philip Powell, a regional economic advisor in the Caribbean Country Department at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), said that while the IDB initially estimated damage from the earthquake at about $8 billion, the complete destruction of the government and commerce centered in Port-au-Prince could push that number much higher. The IDB and partner organizations are currently conducting a Post-Disaster Needs Assessment that will ultimately identify the official damages and ballpark the cost of reconstruction.
Powell stated that Haiti is “not starting from a blank slate,” citing a development strategy agreed upon in April 2009 by the Haitian government and international donors. In keeping with the strategy, he emphasized the need for effective coordination between donors and the Haitian government. At the same time, he said it is vital to encourage population dispersion by shifting government agencies and private-sector jobs to other parts of the country. Haiti needs roads and communication networks outside of the capital area, as well as export processing zones in outlying regions, to increase the economic opportunities outside of Port-au-Prince, he said.
However, with the large amounts of aid flowing into the country, Powell warned donors and Haitian officials to remain on the lookout for “Dutch disease”—a decline in the manufacturing sector following a sharp increase in natural resource prices, foreign assistance, or foreign direct investment. Its occurrence could increase Haiti’s dependency on aid in the future.
Challenges for Healthcare
Sheri Fink, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and senior fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, offered her perspective on Haiti’s continuing health crisis based on two trips to the country in the earthquake’s aftermath. There are signs of hope, including some normalcy and commerce returning to the camps, she noted, but problems in the health sector as a whole are increasing. As field hospitals put in place after the earthquake close, “there is a fear among Haitians that attention is starting to turn elsewhere,” she said.
According to Fink, “the work is far from done” in Haiti, a sentiment she said is shared by many departing health workers. The hospitals left standing are not prepared to deal with the influx of patients arriving at their doors following the closure of field hospitals, and government health workers are currently working without pay.
Fink also pointed out the risk of long-term earthquake-related health problems, including injuries suffered during aftershocks or from falling debris, inflamed chronic diseases, horrible conditions and lack of basic health services in camps, and the “looming nightmare” of infectious disease epidemics.
Fink called for more international involvement to avert a widening of the health crisis. “We’ve made a big commitment and to follow-up on the investment, to make it mean something; let’s not be satisfied with just bringing things back to where they were,” she said.
By Sarah Huston and David Klaus of Wilson Center on the Hill at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Photo: Courtesy Flickr user United Nations Development Programme