From Haiti's ruins, a chance to rebuild a nation

This gallery collects all of our photos of the crisis in Haiti, starting with the most recent images and going back to the first photos that emerged after an earthquake hit the impoverished nation Jan. 12.
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

Even as rescuers are digging victims out of the rubble in Haiti, policymakers in Washington and around the world are grappling with how a destitute, corrupt and now devastated country might be transformed into a self-sustaining nation.

Development efforts have failed there, decade after decade, leaving Haitians with a dysfunctional government, a high crime rate and incomes averaging a dollar a day. But the leveled capital, Port-au-Prince, must be rebuilt, promising one of the largest economic development efforts ever undertaken in the hemisphere -- an effort "measured in months and even years," President Obama said Saturday in an appeal for donations alongside former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And those who will help oversee it are thinking hard about how to use that money and attention to change the country forever.

"It's terrible to look at it this way, but out of crisis often comes real change," said C. Ross Anthony, the Rand Corp.'s global health director. "The people and the institutions take on the crisis and bring forth things they weren't able to do in the past."

The early thinking encompasses a broad swath of issues. Policymakers in Washington are considering whether to expand controversial trade provisions for Haiti and how to help fund the reconstruction for years into the future. The rule of law needs to be strengthened, particularly with regard to matters of immediate concern, such as property rights, inheritance issues and guardianship in hard-hit neighborhoods.

And somehow, development officials agree, the recovery effort must build up, not supplant, the Haitian government and civil society, starting with putting Haitian authorities at the center of a single, clearly defined plan to rebuild Port-au-Prince and its environs in a far sturdier form.

"National disasters, as awful as they are, you want to seize those moments, use that awful, awful opportunity, to strengthen the ability of national and local authorities to act for the benefit of their citizens," said Jordan Ryan, the assistant administrator of the U.N. Development Program. There is, to an extent, a development framework in place from efforts underway before the earthquake involving the Obama administration, the United Nations, a huge network of international aid groups and a Haitian government that, despite corruption, was viewed as more reliable than any in years. The United States budgeted $292 million in assistance to Haiti this year, including food aid, infrastructure funds and money to fight drug trafficking. And the Haitian economy grew by 2.5 percent in 2009, despite the global recession.

"We were really making progress," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday, before visiting the capital Saturday. "We had a good plan that was a Haitian plan. The Haitian government created the plan. It was realistic. It was focused. We worked with them. . . . And it was certainly on track to be, in my view, a very positive effort."

But some development veterans say a full rethinking is now in order. Gerald Zarr, who was the U.S. Agency for International Development's director in Haiti from 1986 to 1990, said even more must be done to involve the Haitian government. Too often, he said, understandable distrust of local authorities has led the United States and the United Nations to work mostly through the many aid groups in Haiti.

"Haiti's going to have to change. And if they do, we ought to make a commitment to stick with the government of the day to keep the institutional development going," Zarr said. "Unless we are committed to institutional development, I fear Haiti's never going to get off this terrible treadmill it's been on."

Others aren't so sure. Putting more faith in Haitian authorities can be done only if there is a crackdown on corruption, said Stuart W. Bowen Jr., who has witnessed the tension between local empowerment and wasted aid money as special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. The United States has spent $800 million in Haiti in five years, he said, with little to show for it.

"Certainly, at this stage, the delivery of aid should be direct and not through the government," he said. "And that process should be maintained for a while, until there is a sense of stability . . . to make sure that the government delivers the aid well."

Because nongovernmental organizations will play a central role for years to come, development veterans say, it will be up to the United Nations to ensure that their efforts are coordinated, as was done after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

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