Toward a New Haitian State

The disastrous earthquake provides an opportunity to create a more democratic Haiti with a strong government.

The ruins of Haiti's National Palace. (Getty Images)

In the midst of this cataclysm, Haitians could acquire a new sense of solidarity and citizenship to supplant the zero-sum game politics that have characterized the country’s history. Facing disaster, Haitians may finally understand that a better future requires the demise of the old ways of governing and producing. A more inclusive social pact between the privileged few and the poor majority could rise from the ghastly dust of the earthquake.

An International Hand

If Haiti is to extricate itself from its past predicament, it will need the massive help of the international community. But once the rescue and relief operations are done and once the immediate shock has subsided, the international community will have to change its traditional methods of assistance. It will have to concentrate its resources on helping Haitians build a coherent and functioning state. Such a strategy entails both facilitating the development of an effective public bureaucracy and channeling most foreign assistance through governmental institutions.

For the past 30 years, because of fears of corruption, donors have bypassed the state and emphasized NGO-led development; the results of this experience have been quite meager, and it is time to change course. It is true that state corruption is a problem, but this reality should not hide the fact that only a very limited amount of foreign assistance ends up in governmental hands. As Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press has reported: “Less than a penny of each dollar the U.S. is spending on earthquake relief in Haiti is going in the form of cash to the Haitian government. Corruption is not limited to public authorities; private agents, and NGOs themselves are not immune to it. Haitians know well that NGOs have become “big business” and that the economic elites have resisted paying taxes and engaged in illicit activities. It is therefore time for Haitians to call on the foreign community to use this moment of reconstruction to help them expand state capacity and create a competent public service. For instance, the rebuilding of the capital city, whether in its current site or elsewhere, should be an opportunity to create governmental cadres of urban planners and engineers. The objective is therefore the building of state capacity instead of continuing to favor the development of what is known in Haiti as “La République des ONGs,” the NGO Republic.

More than 10,000 NGOs have been doing “development work” for the past three or four decades. They have been the privileged partner of international financial institutions channeling assistance to the country. While they may be well meaning, they are not the engine that will generate self-sustained growth in Haiti. Uncoordinated among themselves and having no national coherence, they are a palliative agent in the struggle against poverty.

Instead of pumping more of its resources into NGOs, the international community must shift its priorities and concentrate on helping Haitians build durable state institutions. While the earthquake had cataclysmic consequences for the Port-au-Prince area and the southern town of Jacmel, it left the rest of the country relatively unscathed but strikingly incapable of offering any relief to the capital. The utter lack of a national emergency system even after the devastating hurricanes of two years ago symbolizes the absence of a responsible state. In fact, government officials have tended to abdicate their responsibilities to NGOs and the United Nations; not surprisingly, Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aimé confessed that it was the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) that had “traditionally coordinated relief efforts.”

Neo-Liberalism’s Consequences

The emasculation of the state is no accident, however; it is partly the consequence of the neo-liberal regime implanted in the country by the major international financial institutions (IFIs). By advocating the withdrawal of the state from its social and regulating obligations, and by promoting the supremacy of the market, this regime has contributed to an economic, political and social disaster. The emasculated state has left the population unprotected from the harsh realities of poverty, unemployment and the vagaries of nature. Moreover, the international agencies’ economic plans stressing the development of export-oriented urban enclaves dependent on ultra cheap labor have contributed to the utter neglect of agricultural production as well as the inevitable population exodus to the cities. Port-au-Prince, built for 250,000 people, has now about 3 million inhabitants most living in poverty and squalor. In the medium and long term, the international community should promote an alternative model based on the protection and reinvigoration of domestic production that satisfies basic needs, a model that privileges the development of the rural areas.