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

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010; A01

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.

William Loris, director general of the International Development Law Institute in Rome, points to another lesson from the tsunami: the role of the rule of law. In Banda Aceh, Indonesia, this meant coming up with a formal, regional legal system to replace the informal customs in villages that were all but swept away. The new laws also empowered women to own property.

"You've got to figure out what is the state of the rule of law in Haiti and what are the strategies for improving on it," Loris said. "It's really critical that this not get lost. You're working on a mountain of injustices unless there's justice at the bottom of the heap."

The international community is already wrestling with one major factor hanging over Haiti's economic future, its crushing foreign debt, which has required the nation to pay more than $50 million a year in debt service. On this front, too, some progress had been made, with the International Monetary Fund announcing in July that the country's reforms had qualified it for $1.2 billion in debt relief out of the more than $1.9 billion it owed. On Friday, France contacted the Paris Club, the informal group of financial officials representing the world's wealthiest nations, to discuss speeding up relief.

Meanwhile, Peter Yeo, vice president for public policy at the United Nations Foundation, said the Obama administration needs to develop its strategy for appealing to Congress for additional aid for Haiti, beyond the $100 million in emergency aid Obama announced last week.

"It's important to get Congress on board," said Yeo, a former congressional aide. "Right now, in the heat of the emergency, everyone's on board, but they [the administration] shouldn't take that for granted. They need to keep Congress fully informed of what they're doing."

But creating a new economy will rest on more than sacks of food and aid dollars, which is why others say the United States should revisit trade policies with Haiti. Over the protest of American textile manufacturers, the United States granted tariff exemptions in 2006 to Haitian-made apparel and, after seeing middling results, in 2008 eased restrictions on using fabrics from certain low-cost countries. By 2009, more than two dozen Haitian companies employed 24,000 people making T-shirts, men's suits and more.

James Roberts, a former Foreign Service officer in Haiti now at the Heritage Foundation, argues for liberalizing the fabric rules further, to lower Haitians' costs. He also called for revisiting the "really destructive" U.S. tariffs on sugar to encourage growers in Haiti. Others say the United States should make it easier for Haiti to export its mangoes, which are prized by many American consumers but have faced hurdles because of U.S. food safety rules.

Some experts say that the answer is a rice revival. Until the 1980s, Haiti grew almost all the rice that it ate. But in 1986, under pressure from foreign governments, including the United States, Haiti removed its tariff on imported rice. By 2007, 75 percent of the rice eaten in Haiti came from the United States, according to Robert Maguire, a professor at Trinity Washington University. Haitians took to calling the product "Miami Rice."

The switch to importing rice was driven by U.S. subsidies for its own growers, said Fritz Gutwein, co-director of the social justice organization Quixote Center and coordinator of its Haiti Reborn project. The result in Haiti was a neglect of domestic agriculture that left many of the country's farmers, still the majority of its population, unable to support themselves, fueling waves of urban migration and environmental degradation.

"America needs to look at how its own agricultural policies affect Haiti," Gutwein said.

No one is expecting controversial trade policies to be taken up overnight. But the broader rebuilding effort needs to begin as soon as the initial rescue is over, said Mark Schneider, a former USAID official now with the International Crisis Group. "You can't hope to create any kind of sustainable development if this process doesn't start quickly," he said. "If you don't start it now, something will take the world's attention away from Haiti."

Staff writers Binyamin Appelbaum and Renae Merle contributed to this report.

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