strategies for a developing world…

My Homeland Has Collapsed

Haiti one year later

By the time the clock hit 10:00 am on November 28 [1987], everyone knew that the scheduled elections were in trouble. The ruling regime had used just about every tool in its arsenal to ensure it remained in firm control of the reins of power,  including voter intimidation, violent attacks against the press and political parties. Twenty-three years later on November 28, 2010, at almost exactly the same time, word went out that the elections were in trouble: 15 out of the 19 candidates vying to become the next president of Haiti called for the elections to be declared null and void. They claimed that reports from the hinterland, provincial capitals and Port-au-Prince indicated that Inite, the improvised political group most closely associated with the outgoing President, had engaged as feared in blatant ballot stuffing, voter disenfranchisement and violent disruption of the voting when all else failed.

haup7The two elections were separated by 23 years. Yet the outcome was the same: political chaos, instability, and stalemate. The difference this time was this: during the interval, Haiti had engaged in a race to the bottom marked by amongst other things two international military interventions, several coups d’état, lower standards of living, virtually no investment in the socio-economic underpinnings that make for a viable nation, and increasingly destructive tropical storms and rains. The high death toll and heavy physical damage to the housing and business capital that the earthquake of January 12, 2010 inflicted on Port-au-Prince and its suburbs, Léogane, Jacmel, Grand Goâve and Petit Goâve underscored the extent to which Haiti had literally become a living hell, despite quasi-management of the country by a 12,000 strong United Nations peacekeeping mission known by its acronym MINUSTAH.

Yet, the earthquake was seen as a blessing in disguise despite its devastating impact on the people of Haiti and the feeble institutions that managed the affairs of state until then. The Haitian and international response to Haiti’s troubles was remarkable and surprised even the most jaded amongst us. A new spirit of camaraderie had emerged in Haiti right after the quake. Never before had Haiti enjoyed so much empathy and good will internationally. Millions were raised, and billions promised. Plans were drawn up not just to rebuild Haiti, but to build the country back better.

Unfortunately Haiti is no better off today than it was at the end of January 2010.  Instead of a vibrant rebuilding effort, a new normal has settled in: the country’s capital, the epicenter of all business and commercial activities, is but a huge slum with half of its population living in squalid and makeshift refugee camps managed by international charities. There’s been little investment elsewhere in housing and job creation. Government remains crippled by inefficiencies and poor leadership.

What went wrong: Good strategy, poor execution

Shortly after the earthquake, Haitians and their international allies settled on a 3-pronged strategy to stimulate the rebuilding process.

First, establish a strong development authority that would enjoy shared international/haitian responsibility for the success or failure of the rebuilding effort. Such authority would be managed by a strong executive, preferably a visionary who would enjoy extraordinary powers both by design and by the force of his or her leadership. Reason for doing so was obvious:

· The Haitian govt had completely collapsed. What little political leadership there was had vanished in the days following the earthquake. For the foreseeable future, Haiti would depend heavily on external support.

· Rebuilding  the economic infrastructure of Haiti could not and should not be held hostage to Haiti’s byzantine  politics

· Robert Moses came to mind as the type of leadership needed to move things along for rebuilding Port-au-Prince would require no less than a strong hand ready to wield power as seen fit to get things moving quickly in a new direction. (Moses, lawmaker and architect, master builder who controlled enormous amounts of money, employed thousands and reshaped New York City into the modern city that it is right now; managed several  independent authorities)

Second, rebuild the government of Haiti to the point that it could fulfill the essential functions of government and eventually regain sovereign powers.

Third, restart the electoral process which the quake had put on hold in order to establish a fully functional parliament, ensure a smooth presidential succession, ratify and implement some of the long-awaited constitutional reforms agreed to by the outgoing parliament.  Regardless of the urgent imperative to address the needs and expectations of the people of Haiti, realpolitik dictated that one ignore at one’s own peril the agitations of politicians eager to step into the shoes of a lame-duck president at the earliest opportunity. Therefore elections had to be held in order to provide political hopefuls the opportunity to make their case to the people of Haiti and insure a smooth transition of political power, while shielding the rebuilding effort from the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics.

Poor execution:

The strategy began to unravel almost as soon as it was formally adopted at a March 31 international donors meeting in NY.  The core of the failure resided in the international community continuing to take its cues and leadership from the ineffective government of Haiti. It has constantly underestimated the nihilistic ideology and kleptocratic mindset that have long driven governments since 1986 to weaken the state while micromanaging political affairs with nary a thought as to its detrimental impact on the average Haitian.

Thus while UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton signed on enthusiastically to co-chair the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC) along with Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, the hoped-for decisive leader never materialized. Several weeks later, a Préval advisor was appointed interim director and was eventually offered the job permanently when the executive search proved fruitless. It took several more weeks for the commission to assemble a staff. Yet it wielded no real power nor controlled significant sums that could be used immediately towards the rebuilding efforts. In short, the IHRC is as close to a paper institution as one can get in post-quake Haiti.

Failure of the IHRC to provide leadership in reconstruction led to a shift in emphasis: the electoral process began to take priority over all other concerns. Unfortunately as the shift took hold, little was done to build trust and confidence in a free and impartial vote. Neither did the short electoral period allow for much debate on the issues dearest to the people of Haiti. Jude Celestin, standard-bearer for the president’s electoral platform spent much on billboards, posters, t-shirts, radio and TV ads but shied away from the press throughout the campaign.

As Haiti inched closer to elections, cholera whose rapid spread throughout  the country appeared unstoppable further undermined confidence in the govt. But this time, the UN came universally under fire for its failure to acknowledge that some of the troops might have been responsible for the latest calamity to hit Haiti. Thus it lost confidence as well. By the time November 28 rolled around, the pent up frustrations with the government, the UN, the Interim Commission, the international NGOs and Haitian politicians were palpable. They boiled over a few days later.

What next?

Haiti, my homeland, has collapsed. To recover from the latest disasters, Haiti should focus on institution-building, and invest heavily in education and healthcare to develop its human capital, and develop its domestic market potential. Elections are the last thing that Haiti needs at this time for they only allow change from  one primitive leadership  to another in  the absence of strong state institutions that can keep arbitrary and destructive policymaking  in check. Haitians and their international allies have some tough decisions to make in the days ahead. They have few options left.

N.B. This post originally appeared in the Boston Haitian Reporter

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