Wednesday, January 20, 2010

How to Rebuild Haiti Stronger

Buried in the calamity of the Haitian earthquake is a speck of hope - the chance that the aid and attention flowing toward this troubled nation can help it address the systemic issues that have long beguiled it. TIME talked to Robert Maguire, director of the Haiti program at Trinity University in Washington, D.C., about how the poorest country in the western hemisphere can rebound from an unspeakable disaster.

In what ways does this tragedy present an opportunity to rebuild stronger? There's a potential silver lining in a deep, dark cloud. Investment in the development of rural Haitian economies has been lacking for the past three decades. This has spurred a tremendous, off-the-land migration to Port-au-Prince. An average of about 75,000 people per year have been arriving in Port-au-Prince from the countryside for 30 years. That's why the city has grown from 750,000 people in 1982 to more than 2 million today. You can't change tectonic plates, but you can change the dynamic that has people seeking a sliver of opportunity in a city that can't offer it to them. They stack up against each other, and you see the results.

(See exclusive TIME photos of the earthquake's aftermath.)

Already, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced. Right now, they're displaced within the city, but they are eventually going to be displaced throughout Haiti. People are trying to get out of the city to places they have a connection with elsewhere in the country. That's happening in a de facto way. One of things we might want to look at is trying to have it happen in a more structured way. This is where I think the silver lining may be. I've been advocating for a long time - and I've gotten traction with a number people in Haiti, and discussed it with President Clinton and Paul Farmer and people within the State Department - an idea like the approach of Roosevelt in the New Deal. [That is,] to create institutions that could not only employ people but also mobilize them to help rebuild the country and gain a stake in the process.

Could this disaster expedite those efforts? That's what I'm hoping. This provides us with the opportunity to decentralize. You have to provide structures and opportunities for people to do positive reconstruction work throughout the country.

Right now you have all these aid organizations and foreign governments pouring in money and time, but ultimately Haiti will recede a bit from the eyes of the world. The government obviously has to play a role in long-term, sustained rebuilding. There's no doubt about that. Given that the government has essentially collapsed, in the short term there will be a need for ownership to be shifted to people who have the resources and ability [to rebuild].

How incapacitated is the government right now? I think almost totally. Their physical infrastructure, which was weak to begin with, is pretty much gone. This is kind of an apocalyptic blow to this government. It was already what some people called a hollow government. It looked good on the outside, with some good, high-profile front people. But when you poked beneath, there weren't enough people with that expertise.

Was the issue corruption? It was kind of a demoralized institution. If you were in Haiti and wanted to get paid, you wouldn't work in the government. You'd work in an international organization that would pay you four or five times more, and they'd pay you regularly. So the people who stuck it out with the government were demoralized. One of the things both Clintons have been looking at is the need to have a state with capacity. Over the past couple of years, Haiti was talking a good game, and that was an improvement. They had come up with a national development strategy prior to this disaster, one that was endorsed by the international community. And the international community, over 2009, largely forgave Haiti's debt in recognition of who they are and what they were trying to do. But their capacity was weak at best. And now it's virtually gone.

Can the government play any role in some of the initiatives you've cited as critical to the country's reconstruction? Somehow, that government has to be reconstituted so that it has input into what the priorities are. It has to be an actor, to not just receive things, but identify the strategies. The President is without a place to stay; he seems to be in just as much shock as everyone else. It's not as though he could leave his palace, as Giuliani did on 9/11, and go make a heroic speech. He and his ministers, and the parliamentarians, lived this tragedy. Some of them died. They are truly, it seems to me, in shock. I think there's a limit to what we can expect from them now. But respecting them and not stepping over them is extremely important.

But how can an incapacitated government be a full partner working with the various governments and organizations providing aid? I don't think it's going to be a full partner tomorrow. It's going to be a nurturing process. We have to make sure that the government is brought along by people who treat it respectfully instead of saying, "Well, Haiti's on its knees, let's make it a trusteeship." Or, "Let's sit in Geneva and figure out what Haiti needs." That approach has gotten us nowhere over the past four or five decades, and it's not going to get us anywhere now. Making sure there are seats in the first meeting for the Haitian authorities - whoever they may be - is an important part of the process.

Are there examples of massive rebuilding efforts - in Aceh after the tsunami, or Sichuan province after the earthquake in 2008 - that we can emulate? When Bill Clinton took this job as special envoy to Haiti, he was basing a lot of his thinking of what he was able to accomplish in post-tsumani reconstruction. There were lessons, I'm sure, that were transferable a year ago, but now it's a parallel situation. It would be critical to have Bill Clinton be clear about what he accomplished in Indonesia. Are there reports on it? What can we learn that we can apply to Haiti?

In 1972, Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, was struck by a devastating earthquake. The old part of the city was reduced to rubble. I've never been to Managua, but what I understand is that decisions were made not to rebuild, but to use the earthquake as an opportunity to spread things out, to decentralize. There should be a series of lessons learned from that example.

What about reconstruction pitfalls to avoid, such as the missteps after Hurricane Katrina? The robust response Obama is leading should reassure the American people that if there is another Katrina - and we have no control over the natural event - there won't be a "Good for you, Brownie" type of reaction. This is an extremely serious response. This could be a confidence builder that the Obama Administration will gear up and will take these sorts of events seriously.



  1. See also article in the CS Monitor:

    After the earthquake: Haiti's deforestation needs attention

  2. Thanks for the article, Dave! It really speaks to the need for Plant With Purpose's work of environmental restoration in Haiti--both in the wake of the earthquake and long-term.

    Aly Lewis
    Grant Writer

  3. great article- very insightful as to the need for decentralization and for rural development like what PWP does!

  4. Thanks for the comment, Nicole. We agree and are grateful for writers who are addressing these needs.