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Report from Haiti: Urgent need for tangible signs of progress

Johanna Mendelson Forman

Five months after the tragic January 2010 earthquake, street life in Port-au-Prince, Haiti seems normal save the downed buildings, almost impassable roads and proliferation of camps for internally displaced people. No section of the city is untouched. The conditions on the ground are still alarming, particularly for displaced people. But windows of opportunity for recovery exist, which could generate real progress if risks are mitigated.

Conditions on the ground

The tragedy of displacement is enormous. There are camps in front of the airport, on traffic circles and seemingly in any available vacant space. The displaced have tents, but it is now the rainy season with downpours every afternoon, which make conditions unpleasant at best. While camps in Port-au-Prince appear to have latrines or portable toilets, it is not clear whether there are enough for the number of occupants. Thus, disease and pandemics remain a looming threat.

Yet street life in Haiti is vibrant: markets are open and food vendors abound. Children are dressed for school, attending classes again, although those in camps might not be as fortunate. The traffic patterns have changed, with fewer cars driving down some roads, but more congestion in others. There is a visible presence of a reportedly more respectful Haitian police force, a change that is needed to build confidence in the security operations.

The political discussion has shifted to the work of the Interim Haitian Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), an administrative institution with an 18-month mandate to oversee grants for projects that is headed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. But it is not yet fully staffed and McKinsey and Company, a U.S. management consulting firm, is working to hire more people to support the new body, which could take an additional two months.

The United Nations (UN) Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is also on the ground. The work of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), with support from the Organization of American States, is now focused on preparing for the November 2010 elections. The UN’s SRSG, Ambassador Edmond Mulet, is well-regarded by Haitian leaders and does an excellent job of facilitating the process. What has been lost is the opportunity to hold referendums on more vexing constitutional issues such as allowing dual-citizenship Haitians to run for national office or election calendar synchronization to avoid endless rounds of voting for Senate and Assembly seats.

The government suffered a tremendous loss of resources and civil servants since the earthquake; it is still quite fragile. It has neither the capacity nor monies to hire people. Direct budget support to the government, which lost an estimated 80 per cent of its tax base, is urgently needed. Yet, so far only Brazil has sent a check to cover salaries.

The Government of Haiti’s March 2010 Action Plan for Reconstruction and Development identified infrastructure as a top priority. Increasing capacity in ministries in the capital and cities around the country was also cited. As with any post-disaster environment, Haiti is filled with contractors, entrepreneurs and not-for-profit groups eager to make a buck in the wake of a crisis. But money is not yet flowing and they are waiting to see what the IHRC will do.

Opportunities and risks

Many see Haiti as a platform for reconstruction. But investment risks will remain high as long as basic governance structures, legal institutions, commercial codes and support for financial needs are absent.

Haitian business leaders see this as an opportunity to serve as interlocutors for international companies and to contribute to their country’s economic growth. Food importers, warehouse owners or those who control ports are in a clear position to gain from this tragedy. But they also recognize that they have some responsibility for the recovery of their nation, an important shift in attitude that underscores the changing dynamic of the private sector in Haiti over the last two decades. U.S. legislation such as HERO, HOPE and HELP granting special access for textiles from Haiti is poised to provide a much-needed post-earthquake boost to the economy. But it is not enough to ensure greater sustainable development.

Relations with the Dominican Republic are good, but the window of opportunity to improve the overall relationship is waning. Immediately after the earthquake, the bilateral relationship was at a new high, with the Dominicans providing material support and President Leonel Fernandez hosting donor meetings. With time though, old business rivalries have resurfaced when Haitian business leaders tried to develop binational cross-border projects. Haiti-Dominican relations must become a priority, not only in response to the latest disaster, but also to face shared climate change and environmental challenges. Co-operation on the use of renewable energy could build trust. But timing is key so Haitians and Dominicans should take advantage of the good will and the largess of donors and the private sector now.

NGOs are currently the main source of liquid assets available. In the urban camps, it is evident that donor co-ordination is in place, but it is less so when it comes to providing support to those displaced and living outside of Port-au-Prince. Better co-ordination among the hundreds of NGOs working in Haiti is most urgently needed, particularly since the capacity of the government to manage relations with a poorly co-ordinated international community is limited.

While on the surface life has resumed to normal, Port-au-Prince residents are still frightened to be in their homes lest another tremor occur. Many displaced lived in rental units whose owners were killed or are now unwilling to repair the houses, making the prospect of returning home more remote for these people. There is still inadequate informal sector
employment and there are more job losses. Many children are not in school because the building or staff has disappeared.

There is an urgent need for more tangible signs of progress in Port-au-Prince. Progress must come in meeting basic needs such as adequate shelter and food, and in providing employment.

While security in the streets is improving, security in camps is deteriorating. The reasons are manifold: the presence of escaped prisoners, drug and human traffickers in the midst of tent cities and the return of gangs to the slums both increase the risk of instability. More must be done for people to re-enter the workforce and move back to their neighbourhoods.

There is an important lesson to be learned: Haitians need tangible signs of progress now. The government and the international community must demonstrate that this is not business as usual. At this point, progress is still uncertain. Pressure on the government, international donors and NGOs has to be unrelenting if Haitians are to benefit from the promises of a new beginning. Silence is not an option. And encouragement and dialogue must be met with action and tangible results now.blue square

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Senior Associate of the Americas Program and the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She was a former advisor to MINUSTAH in 2005. She has a PhD in history from Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri and a law degree from the American University in Washington, D.C.

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