A donors’ conference at the United Nations this Wednesday is meant to be the beginning of the long, slow birth of a new Haiti. Representatives of the Haitian government, the United States and other nations and aid organizations will be discussing large, ambitious, farsighted plans. Participants will be asked for lots of money: $11.5 billion to start, $34.4 billion over 10 years.
That is a large investment for a small country, but it is not all Haiti needs. For this to succeed, the commitments made this week will need to be sustained for many years, and the rebuilding will need to clear away more than just rubble.
It will need to sweep out the old, bad ways of doing things, not only those of the infamously corrupt and hapless government, but also of aid and development agencies, whose nurturing of Haiti has been a manifest failure for more than half a century.
The good news is that even before the Jan. 12 earthquake, international donors had largely reached a consensus on what they had done wrong, and how to get Haiti right. Their conclusions are reflected in the plans to be presented this week, with ideas like these:
TRANSPARENCY, ACCOUNTABILITY, EFFECTIVENESS No donor wants to pour more cash down a Haiti sinkhole, or to fritter it away in small-bore projects that do not accomplish much. The plan envisions a multidonor trust fund managed by the World Bank that pools money for big projects and avoids wasteful redundancy.
The Haitian Development Authority would approve the projects; outside auditors would oversee the spending. There also is a parallel idea, in which certain donors choose just one area to focus all their efforts reconstructing government buildings, say, or fixing the power grid. That promises to be an effective way to eliminate the curse of inefficiency.
HAITIAN INVOLVEMENT Haiti is Haiti’s problem, for Haitians to solve with the help of the rest of the world. The rebuilding must involve genuine, not token, engagement by the Haitian government and civil society.
Previous efforts by aid organizations to entirely avoid the control and corruption of the government were an understandable impulse, but had the unwanted effect of undermining the effectiveness and credibility of the Haitian state.
The new plan proposes an interim recovery commission of Haitians and non-Haitians, which would eventually evolve into a Haitian Development Authority that answers to the prime minister.
If it works, Haiti might no longer have to rely on freelance charities roaming the country, doing scattershot good works that cannot be sustained. Relief agencies have also recently been hiring thousands of Haitians to clear rubble. The country needs much more of that strategy, in other areas like reforestation and reconstruction, to boost not just employment but also the skills of the work force.
SELF-SUFFICIENCY Haitians need seeds and fertilizer more than bags of charity groceries. President Bill Clinton recently confessed that United States trade policies in his tenure did more to help rice farmers in Arkansas than those in Haiti.
Haiti now enjoys generous access to the American market, which should be continued and expanded. As many experts have pointed out, modest investments in the garment industry, and trade preferences for it, could swiftly employ many thousands of Haitians and accelerate foreign investment.
TAPPING THE DIASPORA Haiti does have a large, successful professional class entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, teachers and administrators. It just happens to live in Brooklyn, Miami, Boston, Canada and other places. Many of its members are eager to go back to Haiti to help.
They could do so far more easily if their governments subsidized their salaries when they moved. Such paid furloughs would quickly supply Haiti with people of great expertise, language skills and deep commitment to the rebuilding.
DECENTRALIZATION There are too many people in Port-au-Prince. Haiti needs new population centers, less congested and more vibrant. The failure to build safe housing for earthquake survivors is a continuing tragedy; the time to start fixing it is now, far from the capital.
The paradox being confronted on Wednesday is how to rebuild a country that was never properly built in the first place. Haiti may yet escape the crushing legacy of its tragic history, propelled by the opportunity that this latest tragedy creates. The government of President René Préval has not inspired confidence in its handling of the relief effort, but it has a chance to shake off its inertia and show it wants to get the rebuilding right, beginning this week.