Long-term commitment needed to help Haiti "lift itself by its bootstraps"

August 17, 2011
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Nineteen months after Haiti was hit by a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake, the Caribbean country remains in a state of uncertainty and flux. Haiti is the poorest and least developed country in the Western Hemisphere. Despite the promise of a new president, there remains great international skepticism about the country’s ability to resolve its complex social, political and economic problems. To learn more about what’s happening in Haiti and the international community’s response, we speak to CIGI Distinguished Fellow Jorge Heine, the co-editor of Fixing Haiti: MINUSTAH and Beyond (CIGI and United Nations University Press, 2011).

CIGI: In Fixing Haiti: MINUSTAH and Beyond, you note that a holistic approach is needed to address the root causes of Haiti’s fragility, but a divide exists between the aims laid out by the international community and realities on the ground. What does the international community need to understand about a holistic approach?

Jorge Heine: Haiti’s transition to democracy, ever since the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, has been one of the most complex in what US political scientist Samuel P. Huntington referred to as the third wave of democratization. Yet progress has been made. President René Préval (2006–2011) brought a measure of political stability to a country that had seen precious little of it. He was also the first elected Haitian president to complete his term in office and hand over power to another elected president, Michel Martelly. That said, the challenges are enormous. Many social and economic indicators in Haiti are comparable to those of central African countries. Because of its location, at the very centre of the Caribbean Sea, the country is especially vulnerable to natural disasters like hurricanes and tropical storms. The fact that its environment has been decimated by many decades of indiscriminate tree cutting adds to this vulnerability. This was dramatically exposed by the January 12, 2010 earthquake, perhaps the most devastating tragedy we have witnessed in the Western Hemisphere, with over 200,000 deaths. All of this calls for a long-term commitment from the international community to help Haiti lift itself by its bootstraps. By holistic we mean that a traditional approach to international cooperation will not do. The Haitian state itself needs to be rebuilt to enable it to overcome these enormous challenges.

CIGI: Some observers have pointed out that foreign aid to Haiti seems to disappear into a bottomless pit and suggest that there are other countries in the world whose needs are more urgent, and that perhaps it is time for the UN to wrap up its mission there and call it a day. What are your thoughts?

Heine: There have been problems with the handling of international cooperation in Haiti. Yet Haiti’s problems go back a long time, and it is an illusion to think that they will be solved overnight. The international community has made a commitment to Haiti through MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) and it is important to keep at it. Timor-Leste — where a premature withdrawal of the UN led to severe difficulties — is a good example of what can happen when the UN leaves a job unfinished. It will come back to haunt you. Do we want another Somalia, but this time in the Caribbean? The Haitian problem can only been solved in the medium to long term. There are no quick fixes, and the challenges demand both the military presence of the UN “blue helmets” and cooperation for development.

CIGI: What is the nature of Haiti’s main challenges today?

Heine: On the one hand, Haiti’s difficulties are social and economic: poverty, unemployment, the absence of economic drivers and environmental degradation. On the other hand, they are political. Haiti has a highly dysfunctional political system, both behaviourally and constitutionally. One chapter in the book, written by Mirlande Manigat, who is a constitutional lawyer and was a candidate for the presidency, deals with the issue of reforming the 1987 Haitian constitution. The parliament has to approve the president’s nomination of a prime minister, which is in the French tradition — but things that may work in France do not necessarily work in the Caribbean. President Préval had many difficulties in getting his nominees for the position of Prime Minister approved. And right now we have this absurd situation where President Martelly, who has been in power for three months, does not have a government. Two of his nominees for prime minister have been rejected by parliament. There is money that has been donated by the international community to address urgent problems like removing the debris and resettling people in camps, and so on. Some of this money cannot be spent because there are no authorities in place to make decisions, sign the necessary documents and implement policies. People cannot wait. There is enormous goodwill towards the newly elected Haitian president, but the ball is in his court now, and in the Haitian parliament’s.

CIGI: One of your book’s contributors focuses on US policy toward Haiti under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Do you think that the most recent economic turmoil in the US and globally will halt any progress that Obama has made with regard to policy on Haiti? Does last week’s travel warning on Haiti issued by the US mark another change in policy?

Heine: After the earthquake, and even before, there have been law and order issues in Haiti. There was another travel warning last January. I don’t really see this as any change in US policy. Life in Haiti is difficult enough for Haitians themselves, so for foreign visitors there can be issues, though in my many years of visiting Haiti I have never had a problem. As far as US policy is concerned, Secretary of State Clinton is strongly committed to Haiti. The Clintons have a long-standing association with Haiti — so much so that they spent their honeymoon there. She removed the Haiti file from the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and assigned it to an official who is very close to her. My main concern is that if the Haitian government does not get its act together, it will become a problem. The most urgent task right now is for Haiti to get a government in place. That would be the most potent signal Haitians could send to the rest of the world.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.