Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Haiti’s Second Chance: A Time for Reflection and Progress

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One year has passed since Haiti was rocked by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake on January 12, 2010. In just three minutes, a nation already suffering from hunger and neglect was hit with a seemingly decisive blow.

The media’s coverage of Haiti is as insightful today as it was in the weeks immediately following the earthquake. Then, as now, there is a cache of grim photos and figures that find their way into each segment. Running down a list of casualties—supposedly to paint a picture of the situation plaguing Haiti—tends to oversimplify an unnervingly complicated situation. At the same time however, it’s important to take stock of what has been lost in just a year: more than 250,000 killed in the earthquake alone; 1 million displaced persons; 3,500 dead by Cholera with 400,000 more cases estimated to surface in 2012; upwards of $10 billion in damages; and political violence rampant surrounding the political election. As they say, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’.

But amidst the cripplingly slow reconstruction effort, some progress has been made. The most symbolic achievement—and perhaps the most dramatic as well—is the presidential election that took place on November 28, 2010. Why would a fraud-ridden election that played out like a telenovela be so key? Because the single most important entity in post-earthquake Haiti will be an established, well-funded Haitian government. Not only will this government be in charge of delivering social services the government has failed to provide for decades, but the legitimacy of the government (and I use the word legitimacy optimistically) will determine how much of the $10 billion in donations and foreign aid actually makes its way to Haiti, and from that point, how effectively it is invested.

Granted, it will be several months before Haiti’s next president comes into power, let alone establishes him or herself. But the Organization of American States (OAS) took a crucial step on Monday when it published a review of the hotly contested election results. The outcome: disqualification of 17,220 votes for ruling-party candidate Jude Celestin and 7,150 votes for kompa star Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly. The OAS put an end to the back and forth about who will participate in the run-off next month (assuming President Préval accepts the report, which he should given that he invited the 10-man OAS team in the first place). With Martelly likely to earn a second-place victory with 22.2 percent of the vote, he would face undisputed first-place finisher Mirlande Manigat for perhaps the most important presidential post in Haiti since the 1960s.

Manigat, a 70-year-old former first lady and current vice president of the well-respected Quisueya University in Haiti, is quite qualified for the job due to her emphasis on providing universal education as a means of long-term reconstruction. Ninety percent of Haiti’s schools are private and only about 50 percent of the youth attend school—factors that have stunted the country’s development for decades before the earthquake and have only been exacerbated since.

The Palais National is still in ruins one year after the earthquake. Photo courtesy of Colin Crowley.

Skeptics might say that it doesn’t matter who is elected president given the country’s endemic corruption. Unfortunately Haiti’s track record during most of the twentieth century would support that point. Most presidential hopefuls see the post as a chance to fatten their pockets and end up encouraging corruption rather than attacking it. However, a new president in a country so desperate for change will have a unique opportunity to redefine this business as usual attitude, and Manigat, above others, seems poised to seize this opportunity.

It is imperative that whoever is elected president address the ‘republic of NGOs’ phenomenon. Numbering more than 10,000 today, NGOs have created parallel institutions over the years to gradually fill the void left by a defunct government. Though necessary, these parallel structures tend to tackle Haiti’s problems in a piecemeal, donation-based fashion that proves unsustainable. Few exceptional organizations, Partners in Health being one, have established permanent operations and remained willing to work with the government when necessary. Reconciling the role of NGOs and the new, aid-rich government will largely decide the course of the reconstruction effort.

The other piece of the puzzle is the role of the private sector—both companies that are already on the ground in Haiti and prospective investors. Two-thirds of Haitians do not have formal jobs, and the unemployment rate is even higher for youth. In a twist of sad irony, United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton organized an investor’s summit in-country in October 2009 that put Haiti on the map for foreign direct investment (FDI). But just three months later, the earthquake led to Haiti slipping back out of sight for many prospective companies. And yet many Americans (I mean this in the hemispheric sense) remain ignorant to the fact that many large companies like Digicel can be profitable while also giving back and providing certain forms of social assistance.

The New York Times ran an article yesterday on how Denis O’Brien, Digicel’s CEO, renovated the Marché en Fer (Iron Market)—a nineteenth century symbol of Haiti’s commercial spirit. The philanthropic venture and cash-for-work hybrid project shows how private companies can have a positive social impact when invested in Haiti. Sae-A Trading Company, a South Korean garment company, plans to an industrial park that claims to create 20,000 jobs and will begin to stimulate growth. Simply put, more companies—whether they are telecoms, banks, agribusiness, or textile manufacturers—mean a stronger more self-sufficient Haiti.

In the weeks following the earthquake, many saw a chance to “build Haiti back better,” as former President Clinton said. A year later, we have an equally promising opportunity to map the course of this country. On the one hand, we need a new president that can command the trust of both Haitians and investors, and reclaim the government’s role in providing social services while mitigating NGO interests. But we also need private sector investment—modeled after the Digicels of the world—that see profit and potential where others see ruin. With this formula, perhaps we will be having a very different discussion on January 12, 2012.

Richard André is an Associate of Policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas and Associate Production Editor of Americas Quarterly.

* Homepage Rotator photo courtesy of the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG).

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