Rebuilding on quicksand: Haiti after the run-off polls

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A new Haitian government under Michel Martelly is unlikely to resolve the Caribbean country's myriad reconstruction and development challenges. What Haiti urgently needs now is better governance. Haitians and their international counterparts have to work together to create legitimate public authority for rebuilding a country that does not rest primarily on formal, rules-based institutions.

By Markus Schultze-Kraft for ISN Insights

In his most recent report on Haiti to the Security Council, released on 24 March, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offers a sombre account of the situation in the country. Following the 20 March presidential and parliamentary run-off polls, and prior to the Haitian Provisional Electoral Council´s release of preliminary results, the head of the world body duly acknowledged that "Haiti has the chance to make a fresh start under a new Administration". But clearly, and rightly so, the report's emphasis is on the big problems that lie ahead.

"The incoming Government of Haiti", says Ban, "will inherit a set of daunting challenges, compounded by the onset of another hurricane season, a severe lack of public sector expertise and a growing disenchantment among the general population with the existing political leadership and class and the long-standing socio-economic order. The next President of Haiti may well face a protracted period of difficult cohabitation with a divided and potentially fractious Parliament".

Looking forward, Ban highlights that "the executive and legislative branches of Government will have to work together to meet the aspirations of the Haitian people and to deliver the reforms that they have been denied for so long [...] A new leadership must try to heal the wounds of a deeply polarized society and provide jobs, education and services to a population that is economically impoverished."

Faltering reconstruction

This candid assessment reflects growing concern among the international donor community about the political and governance deadlocks that threaten to undermine Haiti´s reconstruction and longer-term development. The 20 March run-off may have averted a full-blown constitutional crisis, but nothing indicates that the contested election of Michel Martelly will provide the country a sufficiently legitimate and solid political base for overcoming the current crisis. Beyond justified preoccupations that the new president may seek to re-establish the Haitian army, abolished in 1995 and of no use to Haiti today, there is little hope that the incoming administration will muster more capacity than its predecessor to deliver basic services to earthquake victims and to address the problems of grinding poverty, increasing crime and bad governance. Amid patchy and slow reconstruction and an uncontrolled cholera epidemic, building trust between citizens and state institutions remains a formidable challenge.

Concern that Haiti´s reconstruction is faltering is mounting across the international donor community. Since the earthquake 15 months ago, hundreds of millions have been spent in humanitarian assistance, recovery and reconstruction - and more funds have been pledged. But as long as Haiti´s governance structures and those of the international aid effort in the country are not improved and reformed, progress is unlikely and attention will remain focused on a myriad of (short-term) projects, which taken together will not suffice to rebuild Haiti and increase the resilience of its state and society. As one donor government representative recently put it, "we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes if we do not at long last address the question of governance in Haiti".

However, the task is clearly not only to improve Haitian governance, but also to change the approach to, and workings of, the international intervention in the country. The international actors who rushed in after the quake have been described as a "globalized complex of liberal governance" quite unable to fill the vacuum of a crumbled Haitian state, fragmented civil society, self-interested business sector and disengaged disapora. In effect, international donors - the most influential of which exerted considerable pressure to push through the disputed and rigged election process that led to Martelly´s victory - are currently not well placed to be successful at contributing to building a better future for Haiti.

´Rule-of-law compact´: Good idea, but is it feasible?

Looking for a way out of this quagmire, attention has begun to shift to identifying and addressing some of the underlying drivers of Haiti's faltering reconstruction. Edmond Mulet, the UN secretary general's special representative and head of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), has been championing the creation of a 'rule-of-law compact'. "In the absence of any significant progress in the Rule of Law field in Haiti", says Mulet, "all ongoing and future efforts for Haiti's recovery, including reconstruction, economic and social development, humanitarian aid, security and political stability, might turn out to be unproductive. It is high time to put the Rule of Law back on top of the next government's priority list".

This idea is echoed by Secretary General Ban, who in the above cited report to the Security Council elaborates that "in order to achieve lasting peace and prosperity, Haitians must embrace the rule of law. This will require a genuine commitment to creating an independent and effective judiciary, a Parliament that is accountable to the people and not driven by special interests, and a Government that is transparent, responsive to the needs of the country and truly representative of the Haitian people. Furthermore, the rule of law should encompass the creation of comprehensive land and civil registries, as well as construction and building codes and commercial laws. It should manifest itself through the capacity of the State to collect taxes and guarantee adequate legal protection as a means of facilitating economic development".

However, both Mulet and Ban are silent about the fundamental issue of how to achieve these goals in a setting as fragile, polarized, impoverished and vulnerable as Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Indeed, a closer look at the country´s unstable and violent political history since the end of ´Baby Doc´ Duvalier´s dictatorship in 1986 must lead one to conclude that any attempt to create formal, rules-based institutions capable of changing the ways that power is exercised and distributed in Haiti stands a good chance of turning out to be yet another mission impossible.

Strengthening governance in Haiti by turning it 'upside down'

To move ahead, Haiti urgently needs better governance and, specifically, legitimate public authority that does not primarily rest on formal, rules-based institutions. In the absence of strong state institutions in the post-quake setting - and in the wake of an imperfect election process that could not have been postponed further - such public authority can only be built on the basis of enabling efficient, inclusive and transparent relations and interactions between the new Martelly administration and the Haitian state, civil society, the business sector and the international donor community.

Haitians and their international partners should now focus on designing a governance framework capable of shifting or influencing the incentives and interests of these four sets of actors in favor of a national and truly Haitian-owned project of reconstruction and development. The issue is not to lose sight of the desirable end-state of consolidated formal institutions, including the rule-of-law. But for the time being - and until Haiti has become institutionally more resilient under its own steam - the international donor community should continue to provide much needed humanitarian and quake-recovery as well as stabilization assistance; and as a matter of urgency it should support the building of effective, accountable and legitimate relational governance in the country.

Since the earthquake in January 2010, Haiti has not witnessed a full-blown breakdown of social order despite: the enormous pressures on citizens and communities; rising crime and violence against women and girls in the tent cities; the cholera epidemic; a largely paralyzed central government; and a disunited and segregated international community. This means that forms of governance are at work outside of, and in interaction with, formal institutions and the donor agencies.

It is precisely this potential that has to be tapped now in a much more strategic fashion in order to build effective public authority for reconstruction and development until formal rule-of-law and institutional governance become feasible. There seems to be no other way forward if the mistakes of previous international engagement are to be avoided - and if Haiti, at long last, is to build a future for itself that is better than its past.

Dr Markus Schultze-Kraft is Governance Team Leader and Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex (UK). For more than 15 years, he has worked on conflict prevention/resolution, policy analysis and human rights observation/protection in and from Latin America and the Caribbean – most recently as director of the Latin America and Caribbean program for the International Crisis Group. He holds a Doctorate in Politics from Oxford University.

Editor's note:
Julia Gorricho, doctoral candidate in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex (UK), contributed to this article.