As Haiti marks the third anniversary of the apocalyptic Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people, the conventional wisdom is that the international effort to rebuild the western hemisphere’s poorest nation has been a bust. It took far too long to clear the rubble; some 350,000 displaced Haitians still live in squalid tent camps; U.N. peacekeepers are allegedly responsible for a cholera epidemic, and unemployment continues to top 70%. Even Canada’s International Cooperation Minister, Julian Fantino, said this month after a visit to Haiti that his country was putting any new aid projects there “on ice” because of the lack of progress he saw.
But let’s be real. Few if any countries, even one as small as Haiti but especially one as impoverished as Haiti, can be rebuilt, let alone built back better, three years after suffering the worst natural disaster in the history of the western hemisphere. That doesn’t excuse the mistakes, nor does it relieve the developed world of its responsibility to help. Still, Haiti would be in a far deeper abyss at this juncture without that U.S. and global aid, muddled or not. And in the long run, ironically, the international community’s failures as well as its successes—and there have been successes, such as a new industrial park on Haiti’s north coast and hundreds of solar-powered street lights in the devastated capital, Port-au-Prince—could reduce Haiti’s addiction to foreign assistance and prod its own feeble, corrupt institutions to stand up and assume more effective governance.
In their $10 billion quest to “build it back better,” foreign donor countries, including the U.S., often got ahead of themselves by shooting for larger-scale projects like economic decentralization before they made sure that more basic and urgent needs like new housing were checked off. (To be fair, however, the U.S. did lead the way in removing the ocean of smashed concrete and twisted rebar, a job that too many other donor nations considered beneath them.) And the bloated presence of independent aid organizations—did we really need Homeopaths Without Borders in Haiti?—is an irksome reminder that the NGO-industrial complex can seem more bent on perpetuating itself than on purging the problems it came to fix.
Which means the recovery and reconstruction onus, as Canada’s Fantino strongly suggested, sits more squarely now on the shoulders of the Haitian government, especially President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. After a shaky start, Martelly, 51, a popular singer who took office in 2011 with no prior political experience, seems to have found surer footing after making Lamothe, a former telecom executive, his PM last year. They recently took the important step of creating the Cooperation for Foreign Development Aid (CAED), a new Haitian agency that replaces the international reconstruction commission for Haiti that was co-chaired by former U.S. President Bill Clinton—whose own $55 million business fund for Haiti, run with fellow former U.S. President George W. Bush, stopped operating last month.
The CAED, which to Lamothe signals renewed “aid sovereignty” for Haiti, is supposed to steer reconstruction funds more directly to Haitian government priorities. And to their credit, Martelly and Lamothe have stepped up efforts to resettle homeless Haitians out of tent camps—where residents face horrors ranging from cholera to rape—and into new or rebuilt housing, often in their neighborhoods of origin. They’ve also been crusading hard for investment and pushing bureaucratic reforms to streamline the epic red tape businesses face in Haiti. “We have a very aggressive investment code,” Lamothe told the Caribbean Journal recently. “Haiti is open for business.”
That’s a good thing, as long as Haiti doesn’t simply trade its dependence on foreign aid for another short-term addiction all too common among developing economies: tourism. Haiti, home to gorgeous beaches, mountains and one of the richer cultures in the Americas, certainly needs to revive that sector, and the Martelly government has scored coups of late: a new deal with Montreal-based tour operator Air Transat, for example, as well as the country’s first five-star hotel, a $40 million facelift for the coastal resort town of Jacmel and similar plans for Ile à Vache, one of the Caribbean’s most scenic islands. But tourism is also a notoriously unreliable industry on which to base economic development—as evidenced by the tourism-dependent Caribbean basin, which today sports five of the world’s 13 most heavily indebted nations, including Jamaica.
Which is why Martelly should focus less on cruise ships and more on the vessels he campaigned on, including decentralization and agricultural modernization. (The U.S. didn’t help the tourism push, either, when it issued what many called an overheated travel warning last month about violent crime in Haiti, where kidnapping has been a problem but the murder rate isn’t much higher than the U.S.’s.) It is of course crucial to restore homes and businesses in Port-au-Prince; but most development experts—as well as earthquake experts, who warn that the over-populated city, where an excessive fifth of Haiti’s 10 million people live, is vulnerable to another temblor as strong if not stronger than the 7.0-magnitude upheaval of 2010—agree it’s just as critical to spread more of Haitian life out of the capital.
As a result, spurred on by a trade pact that nixes tariffs on U.S. apparel imports from Haiti, as well as start-up funds from the U.S. and international agencies like the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Martelly government is promoting more industrial parks and infrastructure projects around the country. “Developed nations regularly embark on ambitious long-term investments, like commercial hubs, but too often it’s considered deplorable to apply that to the developing world,” says a senior U.S. State Department official. “Countries like Haiti deserve credit for choosing more rewarding long-term strategies over quick fixes.”
Agriculture reform is key, says that official, especially considering that Haiti has to import half its food—and especially since drought and storms like last October’s Hurricane Sandy wrecked more than half the country’s 2012 harvest. Haitian farmers like Lionel Saint-Lot, who still uses a machete to cultivate his crops in Léogâne, west of Port-au-Prince, say they’re still waiting for a meaningful government project (which is hindered in no small part by Haiti’s decrepit land title system, which makes it hard for farmers to access fertile tracts). But recent investments in agriculture are starting to pay off: In rural areas like Cul de Sac and Plaine Arcahaie outside Port-au-Prince, a U.S.-funded crop improvement plan helped produce an almost tenfold rise in yields-per-hectare for corn last year compared to 2010, and an almost fourfold increase for rice. That program should expand now to other fertile zones like the central Artibonite region.
Just as important are campaigns like reforestation (and promoting alternatives to charcoal for fuel) to prevent the erosion of Haiti’s denuded soil, particularly during hurricanes. But whatever the problem, Martelly also needs to keep tapping the expertise of the Haitian diaspora—leaders like Andress Appolon, a Harvard-educated Haitian-American whom Martelly recently named as the first woman director of the Electricité d’Hati utility, a key reform post given that almost 90% of the population still has no access to electricity. At this point in Haiti’s reconstruction journey, they just might end up succeeding in ways the rest of the international community couldn’t.