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Haitiís disasters: natural and man-made

By Roger Noriega - posted Friday, 22 January 2010

Before the natural disasters of the last decade, a man-made disaster hit Haiti. As the Obama administration responds to this crisis, it should learn from past experience.

The Haitian earthquake has produced a catastrophe of biblical proportions. The enormous loss of life being predicted by officials on the ground would make it the worst natural disaster of its kind in centuries in the Western Hemisphere.

The images on television show hopeless people with cement dust caked on their faces. We can pray that the world will be moved to generosity. However, those who know Haitians know them as remarkably resilient and industrious people. The cruel reality is that if you are poor in Haiti and you do not hustle, you die. Haitian émigrés in Brooklyn, South Florida, and elsewhere are extraordinarily hard-working, clever, and kind people. The trouble is, in their homeland they are not given half a chance to prosper.


Before the hurricanes, flooding, mudslides, and earthquakes that have befallen Haiti in the last decade came the man-made disaster. Ineffective political institutions, a predatory state, corrupt and venal politicians, and a weak civil society have conspired to wreck Haiti’s western third of the island of Hispaniola. You can literally see dysfunction from space: satellite photos of the island that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic show the denuded hillsides on the Haitian side of the border. Muddy hills routinely swallow up Haitian hamlets because the state does not have the wherewithal or the interest to keep villagers from stripping the hillside of trees that can be burned to warm a hovel or heat an evening meal.

One cannot pay anyone in this hemisphere less than you can pay a Haitian for an honest day’s work. But you do not see capital rushing into Haiti - because corruption and an ineffective state make it extraordinarily difficult to do business there. What a difference the rule of law makes: Haitians’ gross domestic product per capita was $1,300 in 2008, while their Dominican neighbours attained a rate six times greater. The lack of enforced building codes in the capital city is evident in piles of broken rubble today; while few undeveloped countries’ structures could withstand a quake of the magnitude that struck Haiti, shoddy, unsupervised construction has exacted a terrible price.

As it has before, the world will rush to help Haiti - with the United States and a handful of other countries taking the lead and our military performing brilliantly. Since 1994, the United States has spent about $3 billion in development assistance in Haiti - funding feeding programs and trying to build a bare bones state so that Haitians could govern their own affairs. International development banks and others pledged billions more in aid. However, the actual delivery of support has been sluggish, and much of that past investment was squandered in the vain attempt to prop up the corrupt and self-destructive regime of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Since 2006, President Réne Préval has shown some progress in delivering political stability that has encouraged some private re-investment.

As the Obama administration rushes to respond to this crisis, it should learn from past experience in Haiti and elsewhere:

  • In the wake of past disasters, Haitians were allowed to rebuild on unstable hillsides. Drawing on experiences in Central America in the wake of past hurricanes, it is possible to conduct topographical surveys, impose building standards, and adopt other routine practices to mitigate the damage of future catastrophes.
  • Haiti should be a global responsibility, and an international fund and donor coordination mechanism should be established to assess and prioritise needs; pool and integrate donations; track pledges; encourage joint ventures and public-private partnerships in the absence of an effective state; and recommend transparency measures to all donors to help ensure that aid reaches those who need it and helps build a better Haiti.
  • The United States and other countries home to Haitian diaspora should engage these communities and involve them in rebuilding the country and infusing its economic and political institutions with the concepts of teamwork and social responsibility. These countries might also consider extending tax benefits to encourage charity and incentivise private capital to help rebuild Haiti.
  • The international community should help Haitians run their own affairs. We should encourage the formation of a government of national reconstruction and unity. National assembly elections scheduled for February 28 should be conducted under international supervision as soon as practicable, perhaps in concert with the presidential elections that are required this year to choose Préval’s successor.

Port-au-Prince has been leveled, in more than one sense of the word: even the wealthy are struggling for survival today. Although they will, no doubt, fare better than their poorer countrymen, at least in the next few weeks they will experience the gut-wrenching desperation that has bedeviled the lives of Haiti’s poor for the past 20 years. Perhaps some sense of solidarity or even charity will come from all this, and Haitians will learn to pull together like never before.

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First published in The American on January 14, 2010. 

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About the Author

Roger F. Noriega, a senior State Department official from 2001 to 2005, is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas, LLC, which represents foreign and domestic clients.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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