Saturday, February 13, 2010

Repairing the Third Rail

Last in a series

By William Fisher

As Haitians struggle to comprehend what has happened to their lives – and begin to try to put them back together – the United Nations is reaching out to “a vast and influential network.” The Boston Globe reports that this is Haiti’s network of about 60,000 voodoo priests, “firmly entrenched in their displaced communities, and eager to lend a hand.”

To the outside world, it reports, “Their faith has long been shrouded in mystery,” says the Globe. “But in post-quake Haiti, the practitioners of voodoo have taken on a more practical role, enlisted by the government to help count the dead, tend to the injured, and soothe the psychologically damaged,” the newspaper writes.

But while the UN may find the priests useful, development experts – who already have made copious recommendations for Haiti’s reconstruction – appear to be looking to other kinds of resources.

For example, two veterans of aid to Haiti, Robert Mcguire and Robert Muggah, have proposed a 700,000-strong national civic service corps to energize the reconstruction effort. They say it could harness untapped labor rapidly and instill national pride and confidence.

“A civic service corps would get the young and able out of the tent cities in and around Port-au-Prince and into work. They could start with the once-iconic center of the capital, but also could begin planting trees, working the fields and providing services in Haiti's countryside. At a minimum, this would reverse generations of unfair stigmatizing of the youth there,” they write.

Creation of such a group “would be a symbolic first step toward renewing the social contract with the people,” they say.

Muggah, based at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, is a principal of the SecDev Group and is currently advising multilateral and bilateral organizations on Haiti's recovery. Maguire is on the faculty of Trinity Washington University and chairs the Haiti Working Group of the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.

Another expert, Mark L. Schneider, Peace Corps director in the Administration of President Bill Clinton, has been weighing in on Haiti, focusing on restoring and improving education.

He says, “Let's take the Ministry of Education: What you need to do now is not just put back the same bricks. You need to build a new education policy in Haiti. Some forty percent of the kids weren't in school before the earthquake. And eighty percent of those who were in school were in private schools where they had to pay and those schools weren't very good. There's very little public education. You need to have a commitment to a public school education system that offers a decent education to the kids in Haiti. That needs to be built. So you need to have education experts from around the world come and partner with the new Ministry of Education in Haiti.”

The January 17 New York Times featured the views of a number of authorities on various aspects of reconstruction and governance.

John McAslan, an architect, says “the urge to rebuild rapidly should be tempered by a thorough examination of new designs for safer, more energy-efficient and less expensive structures.”

Robert Neuwirth, author of “Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World,” notes that there are about a billion squatters in the world today. He suggests, “Rather than being put in refugee camps, people can seize the initiative and squat in their old communities, without aid groups clamping down on them…These nascent communities — self-organized and temporary at first — can serve as the building blocks of new neighborhoods.”

James Dobbins is former special envoy to Haiti under President Bill Clinton and director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. He says that while Haiti’s institutions will need rebuilding, “These institutions should not be rebuilt on the old inefficient and corrupt foundations. This disaster is an opportunity to accelerate oft-delayed reforms in each of these sectors.”

He cites the uncompetitive costs at the port of Port-au-Prince and the need to link breaking up or at least reorganizing the government-controlled telephone monopoly to fundamental management reforms.

Steven Solomon, author of “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization,” notes that today only two percent of Haiti’s forest cover remains. “During storms, water rushes off barren hillsides, causing deadly mudslides, clogging streams with soil and sewage and disappearing before it can replenish Haiti’s diminishing groundwater reserves. As a result, nearly half of all Haitians lack satisfactory access to clean drinking water, and more than two-thirds live without adequate sanitation. Water poverty is the main reason for Haiti’s abysmal illness and early mortality rates,” he says.

He adds, “The network of water and sewer pipes should be built with flexible materials that can be shallowly buried and easily repaired.”

Jonathan M. Hansen, who is writing a book on the history of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, suggests that this iconic base could play a role in Haiti’s rebirth as a field hospital, a refugee camp or a depot for the distribution of food, medicine, clothing and other emergency supplies.

It is clear that Haiti will not want for development ideas as it charts its future course. However, development professionals emphasize the centrality of coordination, accountability, a long-term team approach, and far more involvement than has been evident in the past from the Haitian people and Haitian consultants. They also underscore the need to depoliticize aid and end the start-stop-start work patterns that have characterized past aid efforts.

But Prof. Maguire told IPS that the history of aid to Haiti has been a toxic combination of corruption among the government and business elites of the country, a politically-driven agenda of the U.S., and the selfish interests of private sector international investors who “wanted to maintain the status quo” and who viewed Haiti only as “a low-wage and stable dictatorship” able to manufacture basic garments and other textile products.

In a 2003 report, “US Policy Toward Haiti: Engagement or Estrangement?” Maguire noted that “Great attention was paid to Haiti in the period leading up to and following the demise of the Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986, and then again in the period following the 1990 presidential election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, his subsequent removal from office in 1991 as a result of a violent military coup d’etat, and his later restoration to office as a result of a UN-sanctioned and US-led military intervention.”

He noted that Haiti’s geographical proximity, a variety of developments there linked to ongoing U.S. policy interests, and the presence in the U.S. of a large and growing Haitian-born and Haitian-American population, have combined to make this poverty-ridden Caribbean country one of the third rails of American politics.

As much as US officials and policy makers at times may have wanted Haiti to ‘just go away,’ he wrote prophetically, “This will not happen short of a highly improbable geological episode that will either physically displace, or submerge, the island that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic! “

Haiti is not quite displaced or submerged. But it is broken, which means the UN, the US and international donors will have to decide how much energy they are prepared to devote to mending it.

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