By Kaufmann | January 18, 2010 5 Comments »
We are pained about the death toll and human suffering in Haiti and we share their sorrow. With the exception of the tsunami in Asia, this tragedy is unprecedented in recent memory in a country not at war. Current technology makes the devastation and death instantly clear around the globe. Such technology also enables the outpouring of private financial contributions to charity (like the ease by which one can contribute by texting the number 90999 and typing “Haiti” to contribute to the Red Cross efforts in that country)…
It is also clear what the immediate emergency rescue and relief needs are, such as water, food and medical treatment, and then some shelter and emergency power. While precious few days may have been lost at first, the international community is now rushing assistance to Haiti, and improved coordination efforts on the ground are beginning to show results. And we know that in recent times international donors have generally had a decent track record recently in emergency relief efforts when disaster strikes.
What is much less clear is what needs to happen after the first emergency stage in Haiti, and what the response from the international community ought to be in the short-to-medium term. Some pundits are providing recommendations brimming with certitude. But it just may turn out to be more efficient to start from a position of humility and doubt, acknowledging a measure of collective ignorance as to what will work in Haiti in the medium term. This is not based in the abstract: for many years, until the earthquake last week, the international community approach to development aid in Haiti was far from a success. The blame is not merely due to insufficient aid funds (here for details), or the erratic and often military-driven foreign policy of the US in Haiti. It is much more complicated than that, it relates to domestic factors as well, including leadership and governance. Such simplistic views on funding and finger pointing at one foreign power betray a misunderstanding of the development process.
In a meaningful sense, Haiti had not yet become a developing country prior to the earthquake. Granted, two weeks ago Haiti may not have been an extreme case of a ‘failed state’, in the way that Somalia has been for instance. While very weak, Haiti did have a government of sorts, which had made some tentative inroads in some areas over the past decade (such as on ‘voice’).
But political correctness aside, Haiti had not yet joined the developing country set. Public Sector as well as Rule of Law institutions were fledgling at best, and often dysfunctional at worst. The two comparative charts below illustrate the enormous challenge that Haiti was facing prior to the devastating earthquake, for two governance dimensions, namely Rule of Law, and Government Effectiveness. Not shown here is the chart for Control of Corruption, which features a very similar pattern.
The evidence suggests that Haiti was placing barely a notch above the failed state of Somalia. It was not far above it, or from Sudan, for instance. Haiti’s ‘performance’ was well below developing countries in Central America, for instance, which have had to cope with their share of natural disasters. The contrast between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the same island of Hispaniola, was also stark by the end of 2008. Likewise, Haiti’s institutional performance was far below that one of Indonesia, which took the brunt of the tsunami. Indonesian institutions, even if less than stellar (yet improving), played a key role in the relief and recovery effort post-tsunami. That is unlikely to be the case in Haiti. While Haitians should take the initiative as much as possible in leading their own recovery and reconstruction effort, it is counterproductive to claim that very soon the international community ought to play a ‘supportive role’, providing as much funds as possible to the government, and expecting it to deliver in taking the lead now.
Instead, the international community will need to be much more involved than usual, for a longer period, and in a more ‘hands-on’ fashion than warranted in developing countries — akin to a ravaged post-conflict situation. This does not mean that one country (whether the US or France) or one institution (whether the UN or one multilateral development bank) should take full control of the effort, either. This would be a bad idea. First, because the enormous challenges ahead are vast and in different areas (ranging from security, emergency relief and infrastructure, to development), and there is not a single country or institution that could do it well across the spectrum. Each country and institution has a comparative advantage, and the needs are dire. Second, the track record by many international donors in Haiti is spotty, and thus there is uncertainty as to which country or institution will perform. Some division of labor , as well as a modicum of competition may work out better than a foreign monopoly in the aid effort. Third, given history and culture in Haiti, it may backfire for a country like the US to take over.
And the last (but not least) reason: while I argue that we need to be realistic regarding how much can be expected from the Haitian central government in the near future, the same is not the case at the community level in Haiti. Even in terms of ensuring an orderly and efficient distribution of emergency relief right now, it would be well advised to collaborate much more closely at the community level (and its leaders) within Haiti.
In fact, after the urgent relief effort and coping with the challenges of exodus, migration and maintaining order, as a medium term aim there an opportunity to help build Haitian institutions so that the country jumps aboard a sustained development path. Currently we see that the media is concerned about the looting and violence that is taking place in the capital. Less known is the fact that there was frequent looting and violence well before the earthquake, a symptom of dysfunctional institutions.
Consequently, complementing the massive needs for food and infrastructure, the medium term approach to aid in Haiti needs to invest significantly in governance institutions, in some cases essentially starting from scratch. There is not a one and only ‘right way’ of doing this, and by one anointed international or government agency. This massive effort will take an number of key players — governmental and non-governmental– from the outside and from within the country. New technologies (including satellite) ought to play a major role in helping coordinate efforts, mitigating the traditional rationale that there should be one single coordinating agency in control.
Further, we should be realistic about the void in Haiti’s central government in the short term, but entrust its people and communities with major responsibility in the process that will ensue for years to come. Finally, we should be draw the lessons from the mistakes in past development aid programs, ensure that donors ensure that projects and funds are carried out with decent governance standards, and that uncertainty is factored into the design and implementation of development strategies and projects.