This piece first appeared on the website of the Haiti Regeneration Initiative – a new collaborative venture between the UN, the government of Haiti, the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Catholic Relief Services, and a wide range of other implementing partners.
In 2010, Haiti endured a year like no other. The country was struck by a devastating earthquake, a cholera epidemic
, floods, violence, and political uncertainty. At the same time, Haiti witnessed heroic rescue and relief efforts
and an enormous demonstration of international goodwill. Today, recovery and reconstruction are taking place, albeit at a frustratingly slow pace
and not currently at the scale of existing needs.
Just as importantly, 2010 brought a renewed awareness of the need for lasting solutions and improvements in the design and delivery of international aid. During the next few days, we will look back on the tragic events of January 12th, 2010, while at the same time, we must look forward, not just one year, but 20.
A Failed Recovery in a Fragile State
Already before the earthquake, Haiti was a fragile state trapped in a slow but vicious negative spiral. A tightly interconnected trio of chronic environmental, political, and socio-economic crises has gradually ensured that Haiti has had the lowest human development indicators in the Western Hemisphere, with life-long poverty, chronic hunger, and violence. Catastrophic events, such as natural disasters, epidemics, and political violence, have simply steepened the descent. Moreover, disaster recovery efforts to date have systematically failed to bring the country back to pre-disaster levels.
In spite of this depressing analysis and forecast, we should not resign ourselves to failure. The situation can be turned around but only with great effort and by foregoing “business as usual.”
The first step towards change is full recognition of the situation. In the case of Haiti, this means recognizing the marked failure of foreign recovery and development assistance to date. It is pointless to blame any particular institution or individual for this: The current state of Haiti is the culmination of generations of efforts and decisions, good and bad, combined with rapid population growth and an inherent vulnerability to natural hazards. (Editor’s note: according to the UN, Haiti’s fertility rate tripled in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake last year.)
The second step is planning. While relatively solid recovery plans have been developed by the government of Haiti with international assistance, their implementation has not so far met with success, due to four interlinked problems.
First, the humanitarian imperative for urgent and chronic relief is overrunning all good intentions for recovery and development – it is politically impossible, inhumane, and simply unwise to ignore the basic resource needs of a cholera epidemic and a million people living in tents.
Second, nothing suppresses development investments like political violence and uncertainty: Few donors, and even fewer companies, will invest while riots and political uncertainty paralyze the country and destroy its reputation.
Third, the planning process is necessarily democratic and participatory; as a result, however, virtually all of the country’s needs are listed with no reliable process of thematic or geographic prioritization.
Finally – and perhaps most importantly – although the plans are official and uncontested, they generally lack broad credibility and commitment. Weary aid workers, government officials, donors and the general public look back at the fate of previous plans and, not surprisingly, expect these latest efforts to fail just as others have before.
Unlike virtually all other aid organizations I have met in Haiti, the team behind the Haiti Regeneration Initiative (HRI) has fortunately been given the vital time and seed funding to reflect on these issues and try something really different. After two years of preparation, on January 4, 2010, we launched a long-term rural sustainable development initiative for the southwestern tip of Haiti. The Côte Sud Initiative aims to transform the lives and the degraded environment of 200,000 people living in one of the poorest yet most beautiful parts of Haiti.
This specific initiative will only directly assist two percent of the population of Haiti, but just as importantly, we aim to demonstrate that sustainable development is truly possible in this country. Because national-scale issues require national-scale efforts, we also aim to promote change through dialogue and assisting the government of Haiti to develop and deliver on sustainable development plans that work. This is the primary mission of the HRI.
We must arrest the long-term decline as soon as possible. This includes, but is not limited to, basic recovery from the earthquake. At the same time, we need to establish the foundations for the long-term radical changes that are an absolute prerequisite to achieving sustainable development in Haiti. We must prepare to turn the vicious circles into virtuous ones.
So what are the short- to medium-term priorities?
The first is political stabilization, as vital foreign aid and direct foreign investment will simply not arrive in the face of such negative news and uncertainty.
Second, a massive aid investment in potable water and sanitation is required to suppress cholera in the longer term. No country can develop in the midst of recurrent major epidemics. This investment needs to be designed for sustainability; in other words, infrastructure needs to be accompanied by realistic, locally financed mechanisms for maintenance. Otherwise it will become useless within weeks of installation.
Third, persistence is needed on the current debris clearance and rebuilding efforts; we know from many other countries that such efforts can take years to be completed.
Finally, development aid should move out of Port-au-Prince and into the regions. In 2010, the massive influx of earthquake relief and reconstruction aid actually increased the economic pull of the capital and exacerbated existing urban problems.
What to do to prepare for the long term? Implementing radical change requires political support and even cultural reform, so in addition to good ideas, the HRI partnership will work hard to develop a sense of national ownership of the solutions as well as the problems.
Many of the ideas are not new: mildly decentralized development, diversified and value-added agriculture, niche tourism, improved aid coordination, public-private partnerships, etc.
Many, however, are radical, including a proposed paradigm change on migration and remittances, education, food security and import policies, widespread privatization, harsh revisions and rebuttals of traditional development models and assumptions, and adaptation to the new types of religious NGOs. These are just a few of the concepts and opportunities we have identified and will work to make a reality in Haiti.
Over the next few years, the HRI hopes to foster an intelligent and useful dialogue on sustainable development in Haiti. We look forward to having all of those who are concerned about and interested in helping Haiti join us in the debate.
Andrew Morton is the Haiti Regeneration coordinator and a senior staff member at UNEP. For more information on the Haiti Regeneration Initiative please see www.haitiregeneration.org.
Sources: BBC, Haiti Regeneration Initiative, United Nations Development Programme.
Image Credit: “Rebuilding as a community,” courtesy of flickr user Save the Children.