A Blueprint for Rebuilding Haiti
It’s time to replace the piecemeal industry of misery with a development plan that will make a real difference.
Since late afternoon on Jan. 12, images of human suffering in Haiti have been at once wrenching and overwhelming. One senses the need and feels compelled to help in the moment, confident that every little bit helps. When the lens pulls back, the enormity of the challenge takes on intimidating dimensions. The reality that many knew, but that was routinely swept under the rug of small gestures, is now displayed for all to see. Just a brief flight from U.S. shores, 3 million people are stacked along a narrow foothill that rapidly escalates from seashore, to hills, to mountains. The country’s largest city lies along a corridor less than three miles long, covering barely 50 square miles, about the area of Manhattan.
In that densely populated space that all the world now knows, most people lack the rudiments of modern life. Roads and streets are potholed and rarely paved. There is no sewer system. There is little electricity: barely 80 megawatts of usable capacity from public utilities. Potable water is a luxury, drawn usually from a community tap and hauled in 3- to 5-gallon containers by an army of girls. And beyond the capital, 6 million more endure even more challenging conditions.
Nature has forced the issue painfully, pre-empting the social eruption Haitian American academics and business executives have sought to warn U.S. government officials about for decades. Haiti is a country of over 9 million people, crowded in a small landmass and juggling an economy barely fit for 1 million. The much-touted claims recently of 1 percent to 2 percent growth are nonsense. The country produces little that it can export.
Faint signs of expansion are the result of 20 years of remittance transfers from Haitians abroad averaging $1.2 billion a year. The spending power of nearly 10,000 peacekeepers, UN administrators and technicians, a large USAID operation and the U.S. embassy staff adds to the small pile of economic activity. The rental of houses with indoor plumbing and underground water tanks supplied by water trucks is certainly robust. Diesel generators provide electricity in these villas, pleasant by any standard, and ringed with security walls. Racks of batteries wired to inverters capture what little power flows sporadically through the public lines and then releases it to light a few hours of the night.
The Misery Industry
Haiti, the poorest country of the Western Hemisphere, is a major player in the misery industry. Until last week’s calamitous event, it had become more profitable to be an NGO director or a consultant to USAID, the EU or the UN than to run a medium-size T-shirt sewing factory that might employ 200 people. Government officials and the small commercial elite had grown accustomed to the moderate but steady inflow of aid. The man and woman on the street used their brand new cell phones (often funded by relatives) to call those relatives in the United States and Canada and France to implore them to send more money. Haitian ministers—and even prime ministers who traveled to Washington—always had requests for more money at the top of their agendas.
For aid workers, Haiti is not bad duty. The assignment is akin to a poor African country, but just a quick flight from Miami. The people are poor but gentle, grateful and welcoming. The food is excellent; the mini-markets are well-supplied with French wines and delicacies at duty-free shop prices. When Port-au-Prince’s permanent traffic jams and cruddy streets overwhelm, there is Jacmel, a quick 18-minute flight south with its two-story New Orleans-style houses, wrought-iron balconies, international bohemian air and fresh seafood.