After the earthquake
A plan for Haiti
Haiti’s government cannot rebuild the country. A temporary authority needs to be set up to do it
Jan 21st 2010
From The Economist print edition
MORE than a week after the earth convulsed beneath it, Haiti has still to plumb the depths of suffering and want. The numbers are still only more-or-less informed guesses, but their magnitude is grim: perhaps 200,000 killed, 250,000 more injured and some 3m in desperate need of help. The generosity of the world’s response has also been profound. Barack Obama led the way, dispatching 16,000 American troops and marines, but others, from Europe to Brazil, Cuba, China and Israel, responded too. Immediate promises of aid added up to around nearly $1 billion.
The urgent task is to connect this supply of help with the demand. That is proving extraordinarily hard (see article). Seven days after the earthquake, the United Nations had got food to only 200,000 people. Lessons from other disasters are not always relevant to Haiti. The Asian tsunami, for example, struck a ribbon of remote, mainly rural, areas. The governments of the affected nations could lead the relief effort. But Haiti’s institutions were weak even before the disaster. Because the quake devastated the capital, both the government and the UN, which has been trying to build a state in Haiti since 2004, were decapitated, losing buildings and essential staff. So did many NGOs. The president, René Préval, and his cabinet have been reduced to meeting in a police station.
Into that vacuum stepped the United States. Inevitably the dispatch of marines, Black Hawks and an aircraft-carrier looked to some like an invasion (after all, they have been there before). A brief caricature of great-power prickliness ensued as the Americans took charge of the airport and seemed to some others to give priority to their own flights. But by mid-week the airport was receiving three times as many flights as it did before the earthquake. The American forces are well-equipped for the vital task of setting up a supply chain for aid. That is what they are doing under a sensible division of labour eventually hammered out (the Brazilian-led UN peacekeeping force remains in charge of security, and the UN will co-ordinate the aid effort). Certainly most ordinary Haitians seemed pleased to see the Americans.
They are just desperate for water, food, fuel, medicines and shelter. Contrary to some reports, there were only isolated cases of looting and fighting. But delay and disarray has cost many lives. The longer it lasts, the more likely that desperation turns to violence. The UN called for more peacekeepers. Brazil offered 800; it may take weeks to muster the rest. If ever a situation cried out for the UN to have a standing army at its disposal, as The Economist has urged, this is it.
From relief to building a better country
Amid such chaos, it might seem premature to think about a long-term strategy for rebuilding Haiti. Actually, it is vital. Already Haitians’ resilient response to disaster is creating new facts on unstable ground: the spontaneous refugee camps around the capital will be hard to shift. Even before the earthquake Haiti was poor, environmentally degraded and aid-dependent and had few basic services. This means that “building back better” must be more than just a slogan. It also means that time is short before the world’s generosity turns to cynicism.
Fortunately there is a blueprint, drawn up by Haiti’s government and presented to donors last year. It calls for investment to be targeted on infrastructure, basic services and combating soil erosion to make farmers more productive and the country less vulnerable to hurricanes. The pressing question is who should do it and how. Haiti’s government is in no position to take charge, yet the country needs a strong government to put it to rights. Paul Collier, a development economist who worked on the plan, reckons that the answer is to set up a temporary development authority with wide powers to act.
Given the local vacuum of power, this is the best idea around. The authority should be set up under the auspices of the UN or of an ad hoc group (the United States, Canada, the European Union and Brazil, for example). It should be led by a suitable outsider (Bill Clinton, who is the UN’s special envoy for Haiti, would be ideal, perhaps to be followed by Brazil’s Lula after he steps down as president in a year’s time) and a prominent Haitian, such as the prime minister. To provide services, it should work with aid groups.
Some will object that this would undermine a democratically elected government. But there is not much left to undermine. Done well, it could create a state in Haiti able to do more than preside over chaos and corruption. Otherwise the suffering of the past ten days risks being repeated.