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

The devastating earthquake that has destroyed Haiti’s capital has aggravated the already catastrophic economic and political conditions of the country’s history. As a Haitian put it: “Tout ayiti krazé”—the whole country is no more. Beyond the utter terror, pain and loss that is overtaking the population, and the horrifying cries for help from under piles of rubble, the country is in ruin.

While it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the hellish pictures of lifeless bodies—young and old—Haitians and all people of goodwill must immediately contribute to the country’s rebuilding lest famine, disease and chaos set in. Despite their strong sense of nationalism, Haitians will have to accept the reality that at this time only the international community, and the United States in particular, that has the means to rescue the country from catastrophe. The government is an empty shell, the United Nations virtually decapitated, and local non-governmental organizations basically impotent.

Once the relief phase has ended, however, American military forces should withdraw, and be replaced by a civilian supra-national body that would cooperate with Haitian authorities to devise and implement a comprehensive program of reconstruction. This program should reverse more than 40 years of economic neo-liberalism and emphasize massive public works for infrastructural development, agricultural transformation and food self-sufficiency.

The fundamental goals should be to create employment for the vast majority of Haitians, alleviate poverty and bridge the obscene divide between the small privileged minority and the poor majority. This requires a credible and legitimate government that can speak in the name of the population. This is essential because the earthquake has violently aborted the legislative and presidential elections that were going to take place this year and that are unlikely to be rescheduled anytime soon. Extending the life of the current Parliament and Préval’s presidency beyond their constitutional term will not do. The “invisibility” of the current regime in the aftermath of the earthquake cannot be rewarded by a self-mandated reappointment until Haitians have an opportunity to go to the ballot boxes.

New Forms of Representation

In the interregnum, Haitians have to devise a way to express their collective voices in this exceptional moment of emergency. They have to create a new form of representation to elaborate a consensus on new national vision for reconstructing their country. Whether this should be an États Généraux de la Nation—a National Conference—or a provisional government of National Unity, or a distinct body, it is imperative that grassroots organizations, and all sectors of society as well as all political parties have a voice in defining a strategy of reconstruction.

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While this may be an unruly process, it can’t be avoided. There’s the danger that reconstruction will reproduce the old and failed strategies of the past. Moreover, if the existing government and Parliament decide to “go it alone,” they are inviting destructive rounds of political recriminations and instability. Reconstruction cannot be the business of a self-appointed minority. It is an historical opportunity to include the “moun en deyo”—the marginalized—in the making of a new and responsible Haitian state. Letting this opportunity pass will further aggravate the extreme social polarization and of the traditional zero-sum politics that have characterized Haiti’s history.

Haiti’s tragic predicament portends the danger of a Hobbesian war of all against all, but it can also be an opportunity to create a new and more democratic society in which all Haitians treat each other as equal citizens. In fact, the earthquake has become the cruelest equalizer; while it is clear that the small, well-off minority will extricate itself more easily from this crisis than the poor majority, death and devastation are affecting all, irrespective of class or color.

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.

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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.

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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.

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The earthquake has accelerated this process by generating a reverse exodus; masses of Port-au-Princians are now marching back to their villages to escape from the disaster. This spontaneous evacuation is an opportunity to create the necessary incentives and infrastructure for permanent and viable settlements of productive peasants. Such a strategy would stop obscene class and regional inequalities from increasing and provide a sense of national cohesion.

It is difficult, however, to contemplate an increase in domestic food production without a major policy shift from the neo-liberal regime imposed on Haiti by the major international financial institutions. Indeed, the collapse of domestic food production—particularly rice—can be traced back to the policies of trade liberalization introduced in the mid-1980s and 1990s under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These policies have resulted in a massive reliance on imported food and the complete neglect of the rural agricultural sector. In fact, in 2006/07 the entire budget of the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture was a measly $1.5 million, a figure that contrasts sharply with the $69 million spent on the UN World Food Program. Instead of reconstructing its rural sector and promoting domestic food production, Haiti has remained a country of malnourished and hungry people alarmingly dependent on external assistance and charity.

A Role for the State

If Haiti is to avoid an unending dependence on the international community for its very survival, it must place the state at the center of any strategy of reconstruction. The state plays a fundamental role in organizing social life and is the cornerstone of public as well as private production. What Haiti requires is not nation-building, but state-building. Only the state can provide collective protection and create the conditions for self-sustaining growth. Development assistance can no longer bypass the state; while the fear of corruption is real, it cannot paralyze the necessary effort to revitalize state capacity.

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The creation of a new and responsible state does not imply massive centralization nor the crushing of spontaneous forms of citizens’ organizations, but rather harnessing this spontaneity and giving it the coherence and means to succeed. In fact, the state must nurture and institutionalize the peaceful resilience and dignified strength that the overwhelming majority of the population has shown throughout this catastrophe. This behavior in the face of utter adversity is a hopeful sign that Haitians can learn to live in solidarity and that the extreme divide across class, color and gender can be bridged. This task, however, requires a responsible state with the capacity to generate more equitable life chances, more civil relationships among citizens and more stable politics. While such a state cannot emerge from “mid-air,” it can begin to crystallize from novel forms of representation born out of the exceptional necessities of reconstruction. If a viable, accountable state were to materialize, the earthquake’s senseless destruction may in fact become the cruel birth pangs of a new and resilient Haiti.

Robert Fatton Jr. is the Julia Cooper Professor of Politics and Associate Dean for graduate programs at the University of Virginia. He was born and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and is the author of several books, including Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy and The Roots of Haitian Despotism.