Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Haiti’s New President: Welcome to the Toughest Job in the Americas

Reading Time: 9 minutesHaiti’s next president must put the country on a path to real development.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

President-elect Michel Martelly greets Mirlande Manigat (right) during the campaign. Photo: Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty

Reading Time: 9 minutes

After an election process that lasted almost a year and a half—and was marred by fraud and controversy—Haiti’s new president, Michel Martelly, takes office in May. In the words of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, now United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti, President Martelly will face the daunting task of “building back better.”

The challenge is not just to tackle the sheer magnitude of destruction from the January 12, 2010 earthquake. Haiti has long been riddled with social, political and economic challenges that the earthquake magnified in the eyes of Haitians and the world. These challenges include a weak government hollowed out by limited resources and strained by crisis; inadequate social services highlighted by the recent cholera epidemic; and a history marked by social and political turmoil. Added to these have been the traumas of managing post-earthquake recovery and the unexpected and unsettling return of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in January, followed soon after by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The country also faces the task of restoring legitimacy and trust in the electoral process. That challenge was underscored on November 28, 2010, by the controversial first round of the election to succeed President René Préval. Following a postelection period of street protests, complaints and challenges by candidates, and disquiet among international actors, Préval requested an investigation of the presidential vote count by a verification team under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The OAS concurred that no candidate had received an absolute majority of the votes required to avoid a run-off, but the team did not verify the preliminary results released by Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP). Instead, the OAS said that the government-backed candidate, Jude Célestin, did not qualify for the runoff and that the second round vote should be between Mirlande Manigat, a constitutional law professor, and Michel Martelly, an entertainer.

These daunting challenges mean that the new president will have a very short postelection honeymoon.

In addition to managing earthquake recovery and relations with international donors supporting that process, the new administration must respond to the needs and expectations of Haiti’s people and move the country along a path of sustained poverty alleviation and decentralized economic growth.

It will also have to negotiate its way through the country’s ever-volatile politics. The immediate priority will be working with the parliament— where opposition parties will hold the majority—to nominate and confirm a new prime minister. This person will fill the important role of cochair of the Interim Haitian Recovery Commission (IHRC), a mixed Haitian/international body created to coordinate post-quake recovery and development.

President Martelly will also have to manage relations with the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and determine how Haiti will manage safety and security once MINUSTAH leaves.

Without a doubt, reconstruction is the public sector’s top priority. But the pace and scale of recovery remain slow. As of March 2011, only about 10 percent of rubble was removed. Roughly 750,000 Haitians displaced by the natural disaster remained in makeshift shelters in and around Port-au-Prince, vulnerable to disease and sexual violence. Few steps have been taken toward meaningful decentralization.

And yet, assuming that the next president will have billions of dollars and widespread international support to lead the reconstruction effort and potentially set Haiti on the right track, the key question is: where to begin?

Restore Government Capacity

A Haitian prime minister told me in 2008 that he “was amazed to see from the inside just how badly corrupted and decimated our state institutions had become.”

Under the Duvalier dictatorship (1957–1986) and successive military governments, nepotism had swelled government ranks, and predatory rule had only strengthened state agencies charged with extracting resources from the population. Government ministries took on a Potemkin-like façade as competent professionals avoided public service.

Weak state capacity and kleptocratic governance had pushed foreign governments to channel development funding through international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), for-profit contractors and the private sector. This pattern of foreign aid remains in place following the more recent emergence of elected governments. The result: a demoralized and resource-starved Haitian state mostly manages scarcity, yielding to desperation and the virtual absence of government services in citizens’ lives.

Given the already fragile, conflicted state of affairs in Haiti, the earthquake’s enormous toll created new challenges and underscored existing ones. In total, the earthquake left 300,000 dead, including 16,000 civil servants (20 percent of the workforce). An equal number were disabled or injured. About 313,000 buildings suffered destruction or severe damage, including 28 of 29 government buildings, and economic losses were estimated at $7.8 billion, or 120 percent of GDP.

The damage exacerbated the institutional imbalance between the “Republic of NGOs” with its nationwide kaleidoscope of “flag-draped, feel-good projects” and a virtually absent state.1 Haitians became increasingly cynical about the benefits of democracy because they saw no improvements in their lives. Those under 30, representing some 70 percent of the population, were especially skeptical, having grown up in the post-Duvalier era of corruption, state-sponsored violence and unmet expectations.2

Address the Imbalance between a Weak State and Strong NGOs

Greater collaboration and coordination among donors, the organizations they finance and Haitian government institutions are crucial. So is the capacity of the IHRC to facilitate these altered approaches. For Haiti’s fragile democracy to grow and gain the respect of its citizens, state institutions must be able to render desperately needed and expected services, particularly in education, health and the expansion of economic opportunity. For these, civil service reform is critical. Public workers must be equipped with the structure, tools and incentives to attract and retain qualified personnel.

Follow the Money

Given the resource-starved condition of the Haitian government, the new president will depend on $10 billion in donor money pledged by a various foreign governments to help the country move forward. Having countries pledge was the easy part, but convincing them that the government can and will put funds to good use is another story.

Only some 30 percent of the $4.53 billion of pledged programmatic funds for the first 18 months of recovery has been disbursed, and little of that has translated into activities and improvements that ordinary Haitians can actually see, let alone benefit from. Of $2.25 billion in earthquake humanitarian response funding, only $19.6 million (0.9 percent) went to the Haitian government.3

The new government must quickly gain the confidence of international donors. Certainly, the international community will be watching Haiti’s executive and parliamentary branches to see if they can work together to nominate and confirm a new prime minister. The composition of the new ministerial cabinet will also send important signals regarding the government’s approach to implementing the plan endorsed at the March 2010 Donors’ Conference.4 The new president’s policies aimed at supporting and strengthening public safety and security will also be of interest to donors.

Court Investors

Unemployment rates among Haitians—in Port-au-Prince and the countryside—are among the highest in the region. While NGO-led humanitarian interventions and temporary “cash-for-work” programs have combined with more than $1 billion in remittances from Haitians living overseas to help many stay afloat, these efforts are not sustainable. To create more permanent opportunities, public- and private-sector investment and jobs are necessary.

Only two years ago, Haiti was poised to receive such an influx of foreign investment thanks to significant improvements in its economic outlook. Economist Paul Collier’s report to the United Nations Secretary General in late 2008 declared that the country had “the necessary fundamentals” for economic growth and was not a failed state.5 Although this positive assessment came amid the country’s still-dire social and economic indicators, 2009 was a year of stability and economic growth.

It seemed that after years of political violence and conflict, Haiti was on an upswing—until the afternoon of January 12, 2010. Conditions have changed since the earthquake; yet many of the incentives to investment—including a large, cheap labor force, low tariffs, etc.—remain.

Key components for investment in the future—as reinforced by Haiti’s post-earthquake recovery and development plan—are job creation in light manufacturing, urban infrastructure (including housing), agriculture and food security, and tourism.6 Through 2015, the prospects for job creation include 120,000 positions in the garment industry (facilitated by an agreement recently signed with a South Korean manufacturer), 58,430 jobs in housing and urban development, 700,000 in agriculture and food security, and 29,000 in tourism.7 One of the key elements for an employment plan is moving investment and services away from Port-au-Prince and toward other growth poles and development corridors.

The new executive will have to establish incentives and policies that can put this in place.

Go Back to Basics

The new president also has the task of confronting decades-old challenges of weak social services, including education and health. This is caused by the absence of a robust, well-funded government. For that reason, much of the donor money now delivered to Haiti is funneled into short-term delivery of education and health services in tent camps and longer-term reconstruction of schools and hospitals.

The cholera outbreak in October 2010 revealed the weakness of Haiti’s public health system, as well as limitations in transportation and communication infrastructures. The resulting national epidemic—with more than 230,000 infected and 4,550 dead by March 2011—was met by a swift response from the government and NGOs, resulting in a reduction in new infections and deaths.8 Nevertheless, cholera remains a severe threat, particularly in rural areas with suspected contaminated water sources. Authorities estimate that as many as 400,000 will be stricken within a year.

Haiti’s vulnerability to cholera embodies the neglect of its health system. The national average of physicians and nurses per 10,000 inhabitants is 2.5 and 1, respectively. But there is hope. For example, as a result of enhanced funding for prevention and treatment interventions, Haiti’s HIV rate was cut in half from 4.4 percent to 2.2 percent between 1996 and 2006.9

Additional improvements in social services, health and education are essential to Haiti’s recovery and development process, especially as they serve Haiti’s burgeoning youth population. The new government will raise expectations among young people that their future will improve.

For starters, this means addressing the fact that 25 percent of Haiti’s rural districts have no schools whatsoever.10 It will be especially vital, therefore, that the new executive lead the way with policies and practices that facilitate private and public investment in industry sectors that provide youth with opportunity, and not reinforce frustration.

Level the Playing Field

Perhaps the most daunting task to be faced over the five-year presidential term is addressing Haiti’s endemic inequality. Decades of bad governance, combined with an economy that benefitted only a few, had pushed it toward the bottom rank in such social indicators as life expectancy, infant mortality and access to quality education and health care. With 78 percent of Haiti’s 9.5 million people earning less than $2 a day, it ranked second worst worldwide in income disparity.11 Yet Haiti’s imbalance goes beyond income.

Immediately after the earthquake, some 600,000 people fled the earthquake zone seeking safety and comfort elsewhere. Haitian authorities sensed this de facto decentralization as an opportunity to begin rebalancing the country and called for channeling an important part of post-earthquake resources toward 200 communities throughout Haiti in support of this development. This, they reasoned, would not only address the immediate needs of the displaced, but also could create opportunities among them—and the rural residents they joined—to begin rehabilitating the country’s damaged landscape, the infrastructure of the long-neglected agricultural sector and the rural economy.12

In the post-earthquake period, however, resources stayed mostly in the stricken areas, reinforcing the perception that not only was the city the center of attention, but it was also a magnet of economic opportunity. Within eight months, this initial opening for greater decentralization was missed. Large numbers of people who fled the city began to return, some reportedly bringing new migrants with them.

But success rests on the assumption that the government follows a recovery plan emphasizing decentralization and the creation of light manufacturing, plus agricultural and tourism employment beyond the Port-au-Prince vicinity. This is where Haiti’s new government can make a lasting contribution.

A reorientation of Haiti’s economy will also be critical to address urban overpopulation and the demographic dangers that magnified the impact of the earthquake. Haiti cannot move forward if its capital continues to attract 75,000 emigrants per year from under-served rural areas, boosting the already out-of-control population of the city beyond 3 million.

Haiti cannot “build back better” when 85 percent of its fiscal revenue is concentrated in Port-au-Prince. Haiti cannot develop when only 2 percent of donor aid is allocated to agriculture, as was the case in 2007. And Haiti cannot become a stable and democratic country when 69 percent of its rural residents (who compose nearly 60 percent of the total population) must survive on $1 or less a day.13

Now What?

The path that Haiti follows into the future will depend in large part upon the actions of its own leaders—present and future. Hemispheric actors and others are watching closely how Haiti’s political and economic leaders will proceed as the new government settles into office, with the hope that they will transcend past practices of “all or nothing” politics, and reject an archaic, venal and exclusionary rent-seeking economy in favor of collaboration, compromise and the development of human capital. There must be greater inclusion to alleviate poverty and to achieve national reconstruction and growth.

While international actors will play important roles, Haiti’s future prospects for addressing the country’s complex web of challenges will depend largely on Haitians themselves.



1.    “Haiti: A Republic of NGOs?” Madeline Kristoff and Liz Panarelli, United States Institute of Peace, Peace Brief 23, April 26, 2010; and “Securing Development,” Robert Zoellick, remarks at the United States Institute of Peace conference titled “passing the Baton,” Washington, DC, January 8, 2009.
2.    “Politics is dirty – the view of Haitian youth,” Henriette Lunde and Ketty Luzincourt, Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre, NOREF Report, November 2010.
3.    “International Assistance to Haiti: Key Facts as of February 27, 2011,” Office of the Special Un Envoy for Haiti.  $5.55 billion was pledged in total, with $1.01 billion for debt relief. 
4.    “Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti,” Government of the Republic of Haiti, March 2010.
5.    “Haiti: From natural Catastrophe to Economic Security – a Report for the Secretary-General of the United Nations,” Paul Collier, December 27, 2008.
6.    Op cit. “Action Plan…”
7.    “Post-Earthquake USG Haiti Strategy: Toward Renewal and Economic Opportunity,” US Department of State, January 3, 2011.
8.    “Cholera takes a breather in Haiti, but could surge,” Ben Fox, Miami Herald, January 24, 2011.
9.    Op cit. “Post-Earthquake USG Haiti Strategy.”
10.    Op cit. “Haiti after the Donors’ Conference,”
11.    “Haiti: Current Conditions and Congressional Concerns,” Maureen Taft-Morales, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, May 5, 2009.
12.    “Agreement on Effort to Help Haiti Rebuild,” Marc Lacey and Ginger Thompson, New York Times, January 26, 2010.
13.     “Rebuild Haiti, Not Just its Capital,” Robert Maguire, Journal of Current History, February 2011.

Tags: Haiti, Michel Martelly, René Préval
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