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Haiti: Let the Pontificating Begin

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Reconstruction plans for Haiti proliferate, but who decides which plan goes forward?

The Haitian people still do not have tents to live in or regular access to drinking water and food, but attentions have shifted to reconstruction. There are now as many reconstruction plans as there are aid organizations. Everyone who has even had tangential exposure to Haiti has put forth an opinion on how it should be rebuilt. Bill Clinton has a plan and the funds to implement it developed by pre-eminent poverty experts, including Paul Farmer, Jeffrey Sachs and others. The US State Department has put together several rebuilding scenarios and shared them with the Haitian Government. The French have a plan. The Canadians have a plan. The Haitian Diaspora are developing a plan. The World Bank, IMF and UN have plans. Economists are writing op-eds about what the plan should and should not include. Conferences and seminars are being convened to discuss myriad plans. Prominent development experts are advocating for a Marshall Plan and other are pointing out why that will not work. In short, there is a proliferation of pontification. Surely, there will be many areas of accord and many areas of discord. However, no one has addressed the central question the elephant in the room namely, who will decide which plan will go forward?

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In most countries, the government would have the authority to set forth the national priorities and then develop, organize, oversee, and implement the plan to achieve those priorities. In Haiti, however, the government is not in the position to develop a plan or manage reconstruction on its own for three main reasons:


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First, the international community has completely lost confidence in the Haitian government. While most actors are likely willing to work with the government, they do not trust the current regime, which has come under so much fire for corruption, to undertake such a massive humanitarian effort. As evidence of this lack of confidence, currently, only one cent of every aid dollar flowing into Haiti is under the control of the Haitian government. This is a clear vote of no confidence.

Second, the government lacks the capacity to develop, vet or implement a massive reconstruction plan. They simply do not have the bandwidth. Only three of the 18 Cabinet ministers are competent and qualified for their job. The Prime Minister is extremely qualified, but the President has been implicated in numerous corruption scandals and is completely beholden to the business cartel, the Groupe de Bourdon. Furthermore, more than 10% of Haiti's civil service was lost in the earthquake.

And third, the Preval Administration is facing the very real possibility that simmering frustration as a result of their inability to get basic necessities to the victims will come to a full boil, and people will riot in the streets demanding a change in government. Hopefully, this type of political instability can be avoided because Haiti is in no position to be able to absorb this stress to the system.

The ineptitude of the Haitian government, however, should not be viewed as an open path for international actors to take matters into their own hands; Haitian national sovereignty must be respected. Furthermore, such an uncoordinated approach to developing a reconstruction plan is inefficient, prone to waste, and worse, could result in divisive turf battles. In short, this uncoordinated approach can only lead to chaos. We have already witnessed such chaos with the distribution of aid to the victims. Without central coordination in the aid and recovery efforts, interagency turf battles sometimes crept into the aid distribution on the ground resulting in significant and sometimes life threatening delays. That said, the international community has obviously shown a tremendous outpouring of support in the wake of this tragedy, and the Haitian people look upon their efforts with gratitude. It should be noted that everyone on the ground is working against tremendous obstacles and in the worst conditions. However, the fact is that people are still having trouble accessing basic necessities a month and a half after the quake despite the $1 billion and counting that have been donated to recovery. This approach simply does not work.

In light of these dynamics, some observers have advocated that the UN or an international reconstruction authority take over the management of the country. The absence of Haitian input in most of the proposed reconstruction plans seems to indicate that this is a very real possibility. Recent press articles have highlighted the exclusion of Haitians both Diaspora and Haitians organizations in-country and the limited role of the Haitian government in the preparatory meetings for the March 31 donors conference in New York. But the lack of Haitian input in these plans only undermines Haiti when it is most vulnerable, and puts the country on a continued path of failure. The international community is not equipped to develop or manage a reconstruction plan without Haitian guidance, support and most importantly, buy-in.

The international community has a dismal track record to date in Haiti. More than $14 billion in aid money has been poured into the country over the past two decades, with little to show for it (for additional information see: Haitian leaders, most notably Presidents Duvalier and Aristide, and their corrupt cronies have pilfered much of the country's funds. The international community has never demanded accountability from the Haitian leadership or developed a system of transparency for the deployment of aid funds. It is obvious that the strategies and approaches that have been adopted over the past several decades in Haiti have not worked. It is time for some new, fresh thinking on how to move forward. But usurping Haiti's national sovereignty is not the kind of fresh thinking that Haitians need. It is merely subversive and will be viewed as such by the Haitian people (remember them?).

The Haitian people have as much skepticism about the international community as the international community has about the Haitian Government. The limited inclusion of Haitian input into the upcoming donors conference only heightens that skepticism. They have heard the promises for decades and have seen few results of those promises. And now the folks in charge of raising the money for recovery appear to be lined up to decide who gets the money. Already there are stories leaking out about no-bid contracts awarded to firms with strong political ties. To win the hearts and minds and support of the Haitian people, reconstruction must open and transparent and must have a Haitian face. And, to be successful, we must have the support of the people.

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Therefore, the development of a legitimate reconstruction plan must strike a balance among all these competing dynamics. It must preserve Haiti's sovereignty while addressing the critical shortcomings of the Haitian Government and winning hearts and minds of the people. Some observers have advocated the organization of a Haiti Reconstruction Authority (HRA). If established correctly, such an Authority seems to be a reasonable approach to striking this delicate balance while providing the needed coordination and direction. The Prime Minister of Haiti has the constitutional authority to convene an HRA. The HRA could be empowered to oversee all aspects of reconstruction while leaving the Preval Administration in tact through the end of his term in November 2010. As he has announced that he will not seek reelection at the end of his term, in accordance with the constitution; therefore, a Supreme Court Justice will be appointed as the acting and temporary President until elections can be convened.

To be most effective, the HRA should essentially operate as a public-private partnership with members of the international business and government community, NGOs, Haitian business community, Haitian government, and Haitian Diaspora. The leadership of the HRA, however, should come from the Haitian community. The HRA should be empowered to set the national priorities and vet the myriad proposals for the best ideas.

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Stanley Lucas is a specialist in political development projects. He has worked as a Senior Program Officer in Afghanistan and the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Lucas is currently the Executive Director for for the Washington Democracy (more...)

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