8 June 2008

Why is progress so slow in Haiti? I mean, after the earthquake, but in fact the question can also be interpreted in a general sense, like what happened in the past 200 years in this country; the answer is the same: politics.

The standard view is that the Haitian government, as so many other institutions in this country, lacks capacity, which means that there aren’t enough sufficiently trained people to do the work. And up to a certain level this is the case, there is surprisingly little leadership stepping up after the earthquake, there is worryingly little creativity in the rehabilitation plans put forward by the government, and there are alarmingly few solutions being put forward for the many problems that the civil service is dealing with.

Yet, capacity can be built. It is not easy because you will have to convince the Haitians, a very proud people, that they need to accept outside help – guidance and coaching -, especially now that they have to cope with one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in living history. Many Haitians, at all levels, don’t understand this; for instance, our own Haitian staff don’t see why an international NGO wants to bring in specialist staff that have dealt with large and complex programs before, they think they are perfectly capable of running such program themselves – they aren’t, or at least most of them aren’t!

Obviously, at government level there are even bigger egos to deal with. I heard that the Clinton Bush Foundation, specially set up for this emergency, had offered to bring in and pay for 300 specialists to come and work together with government officials in several ministries to help with the work, and to coach the ministry staff. This has now been negotiated down to 30! By the Haitian government, which doesn’t think it necessary to be coached. The same government that presided over a totally dysfunctional society, a failed state, even before the earthquake. A state where the highest achievable success is deemed to be legal emigration to the US or Canada, and the second highest achievable success illegal emigration.

Or could it be that the Haitian government is not really interested in improving this state of affairs? The Haitian government? Who is the Haitian government? Since I arrived here I have been perplexed by the fact that the Haitian government, with elections looming, did not do the populist thing, and expropriated land close to Port-au-Prince quickly, to let the NGOs build better camps, more of the Corails, spacious and with adequate facilities, but then closer to town, to ensure people continue to keep access to urban livelihoods. Perhaps individually smaller camps, easier to manage, safer and less prone to gang dominance and violence. Instead, it took the government months and months to finally come up with one piece of land, far away – admittedly, coincidentally close to Cabaret, one of the identified decongestion spots, the poles de croissance I wrote about earlier, but not a popular decision. Apparently, keeping the landowners happy, likely belonging to the 5 or 10 or 20 or so rich families that have controlled Haiti for as long as anybody can remember, is more important than wooing the voters, and we don’t want to upset them through expropriation, now, do we?

Perhaps it is these people behind the scene, those few rich families, who hold sway over the government, who manipulate what happens in this country. Perhaps they don’t want that capacity to be built, because hey, it is easier to manipulate the uneducated. It is easier to exploit chaos. Maybe there is a vested interest in keeping customs inefficient; we have more than 20 cars stuck in customs, they arrived early March, three months ago, and have not been cleared and registered yet. In the mean time we are renting cars, and pay handsomely for it as long as we cannot use our own vehicles. And we are not the only ones. I wonder who owns the franchises of Hertz, Avis and Budget business here in this country; no, I think I know. The same people who wield all the power behind the scenes, the same people who block customs reform. Maybe there is a vested interest in frustrating the international humanitarian community, by procrastinating with the rebuilding of Haiti, by undermining the efficiency of collaboration mechanisms, by insisting on government approvals, by paralyzing the decision making processes through simply not turning up for meetings. Who knows, perhaps the humanitarian community will fail, and withdraw, leaving the spoils for, guess who?

What can we do about it? Of course we can walk away in disgust, but that is not going to help the vast majority of Haitians who would want a better country, and deserve it, but are powerless to get there without outside help. Instead, we need to keep international attention focused on Haiti, for as long as possible, so that the biggest excesses are being avoided; even the rich, even the Haitian rich, can be embarrassed. And insist on joint Haitian/international oversight where it comes to distributing money, even though the proud Haitians will claim that they can do this perfectly well themselves. Right!

next: the clearing

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