Three and half centuries ago Thomas Hobbes’ central insight after the chaos of the English Civil War was that the first test of sovereignty is the ability of the state to end the “war of all against all”. An amazing feature of the current situation is that Haitians seem prepared to carry on. Political insurrection is not in the air – yet. A recent poll showed that the most popular public institution is the Haitian National Police. This is quite an achievement when one considers that the infamous “Tonton Macoutes” of the Duvalier era terrorised the population. But the police aren’t doing the job on their own. UN military police and soldiers have taken responsibility for the security of Haiti for the last several years, and there is a simmering resentment among Haitian nationalists about their presence.
Parliamentary elections have been postponed, and the timing of the Presidential election, scheduled for November this year is uncertain. The Haitian Electoral Commission is notoriously inefficient, and recently admitted that two fleets of cars of trucks provided by the international community could not be accounted for.
Corruption is everywhere, so deeply ingrained in the political and economic culture that there is almost a fatal resignation that it will continue forever. It is a working assumption of life that politicians and top officials will leave office far richer than when they arrived. The Mayor of Jacmel asked for a bribe to speed up the permits to allow the Canadian army to do its job. People complained to the President and the Prime Minister. Nothing happened. Drug money filters through the power system, oiling the machinery at every step.
It would not take much to conclude that the situation is hopeless, and that efforts would be best expended elsewhere. Let the failed state hit real rock bottom.
All that has happened should certainly cure us of naivete. People and governments throughout the world have pledged billions of dollars. It is not difficult to imagine those billions being wasted. It could be more than just fleets of cars and trucks disappearing.
We have to get away from the idea of the “quick fix”, and understand that to create a sustainable economy, society, democracy in Haiti is the work of many generations, and has to start with the Haitian people themselves. The Haitian elite has “worked” the international community for decades, and it is not cynical to say that the possibility of new billions from a guilty west would be seen by many as an opportunity for wealth and self-aggrandizement.
Aid has also been marked by a bewildering degree of shifting fads and priorities, with little consistency or co-ordination. This has to change.
The recent New York conference created a commission, to be co-chaired by President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Bellerive of Haiti. This in itself is controversial in some Haitian circles as an insult to “Haitian sovereignty”. Yet it is difficult to see a different approach working. Too much money was wasted or stolen in the past, a painful truth, but a truth nonetheless.
There is a short term crisis: the rains are coming, and people need better housing now. But the way this is handled could create deep resentments unless steps are taken to combine the short term need with longer term objectives.
The rainy season is coming and when it does the sites for temporary housing – football fields, public squares, the only golf course in the city, nooks and crannies throughout the city and any number of places – will be filled with mud and garbage. Public health will be an issue everywhere. There is also the risk the mud slides will close roads and threaten more lives. But in the rush to move people to new sites there is also a risk of creating instant slums.
The absence of heavy machinery with trained operators and mechanics to maintain them has meant that the clearing of billions of tons of rubble is going at a painstaking pace. A well co-ordinated plan by the Haiti Commission could address that quickly.
Before the earthquake Haiti’s unemployment rate stood at something like 70 percent. Many NGO’s have begun what are simply called “cash for work” programmes, a low-tech high employment supplement to the bulldozers that are so desperately needed. A natural disaster like the earthquake could be a huge boost to employment, again if managed carefully and based on real work. Many drainage ditches are clogged with garbage and will back up in the rain. They need to be cleaned up. There’s plenty of work to do.
The disaster is also an opportunity to come to grips with a serious problem in Haiti, the tremendous overcrowding in Port au Prince, the collapse in agriculture and rural development and the need to decentralize political and economic power. The earthquake did not affect the central plain or the north of the country, and there is a risk these parts of the country will lose out completely unless money is invested outside the earthquake zone, in order to pull people back to the regions. There is no point in building “temporary sites” in the regions unless there are jobs to accompany them.
There is talk of “constitutional reform” in the capital, but this risks becoming a diversion from the central task at hand. Haiti needs fewer politicians and fewer elections. Its political parties need to consolidate and engage constructively in this new national project.
The west should aim to be a serious, but not an indulgent, partner in all this. Haiti was a deeply troubled society before the hurricane and the earthquake. It is now more so. The path ahead will be slow and painful. But there is no avoiding it.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.