In the 30 seconds that it took for a 7.0 earthquake to level Port-au-Prince, Haiti captured the world’s attention. With death toll estimates at more than 200,000 persons, and injured men, women, and children reaching double that number, Haiti would lose 5 percent of its population. The graphic satellite images flashing across television screens of rescues and death conveyed the desperation of a nation. The images also revealed the vast scale of the recovery needed in the days and months ahead. It seemed everyone wanted to do something to alleviate the suffering and provide help in Haiti’s darkest hour. Now, two years later, recovery is focused on development. Finally, progress is replacing frustration.
Q1: What has happened since the January 12, 2010, earthquake?
A1: Recovery has been slow, but not for lack of money. Haiti remains a country where the makeshift nature of political institutions does not permit national leaders to move rapidly, in spite of the large amount of resources that has been placed at the government’s disposal. And whether Haitian president Michel Martelly can motivate fellow politicians to move forward on many tasks at once will determine Haiti’s ability to “build back better,” certainly a multiyear proposition.
Complicating issues include a cholera epidemic. The disease had never appeared in Haiti until after the earthquake, but today it continues to claim hundreds of lives. Rubble removal is proceeding slowly, although there is still tons of material that needs to be disposed of before new buildings can be erected. There are around 500,000 people still living in tent cities scattered around Port-au-Prince. Martelly’s ambitious plans to rebuild housing have been stymied by archaic property laws and a government unwilling to exercise eminent domain decrees to secure land for the homeless. Behind all of this, 75 percent of Haiti’s population lives on less than $2 a day, and 56 percent—some 4.5 million people—lives on less than $1 a day.
Q2: What inhibits progress in Haiti’s reconstruction?
A2: Check, but no balance, best describes the state of play in Haiti. Since his election in May 2011, President Martelly’s agenda has gotten bogged down in parliament. It took until September for that body to approve a prime minister, Gary Conille, after rejecting two earlier choices. The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), set up after the earthquake to help direct the flow of international funds, is in limbo since its term expired on October 21, 2011. Today it awaits parliamentary action to approve its extension. If Haiti is to move forward, it will need a legislative body that provides consensus and scrutiny to spend the $4.6 billion pledged for 2010–2011 that is desperately needed to rebuild the country. Over half a million Haitians are still living in tents, feeding the potential for political unrest and crime.
Q3: What can Haiti hope to achieve?
A3: The leadership of former U.S. president Bill Clinton has been instrumental in attracting foreign investment to Haiti. He brought together multilateral lenders, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank to create a Presidential Advisory Council on Economic Growth and Investment, whose goal is create 500,000 new jobs in the next three years. This council, with a stellar advisory board, including former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and Spain’s former prime minister José Aznar, should help to promote Haiti’s image and attract foreign investment. In November 2011, more than 1,000 potential investors from 29 countries came to Port-au-Prince to see whether the government is serious about building back better. The Korean trading firm, Sae-A, Ltd., is opening an industrial park in north Haiti that will provide 20,000 jobs in the apparel sector. Digicell, the largest cell phone carrier, has just signed an agreement with the Marriott Corporation, to build a $45-million hotel in Port-au-Prince. If Haiti’s government can help to shorten the time it takes to set up a business, the potential for Haiti’s economic growth will be much brighter.
Q4: How long will peacekeepers stay?
A4: Security is essential for development. The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, remains on patrol in the streets with some 8,900 peacekeeping troops, 4,000 police, and 500 civilian administrative staff. This mission has been in Haiti since 2004. Some Haitians protest what they say is an occupation of their country by a foreign military force. The reality is that the UN mission has helped suppress violent crime and create a new and modern police force, which Haiti sorely needs. The United Nations will not exit, however, until that new police force is trained, with a scheduled completion date of 2014.
One challenge to the United Nations has been President Martelly’s decision to establish a new Haitian army. This action has been questioned within the government, by nongovernmental organizations, and by the international community. Haiti has no external enemies. Theoretically, the UN-trained police force, expected to total some 14,000 officers, should be adequate to provide security to Haitians. Whether Martelly will spend scarce government resources on a new army or opt for a territorial guard force is still unclear. The question of an army is more emblematic of Haiti’s strong nationalist streak and its history of occupation. What may really be at stake is whether such a new security force would become a jobs program. The previous army, which participated in a coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was disbanded in 1995.
Johanna Mendelson Forman is a senior associate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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