How can Haiti ever be rebuilt?

Click to follow
The Independent US

Q: What are the challenges that will face Haiti when the dust settles?

A: It's hard to know where to begin. Even once the rubble has been cleared and the dead laid to rest, Haiti's infrastructure has been destroyed; its government has been left almost powerless; millions of people have been left homeless; and its fragile economy has been dealt a heavy blow. At the same time, though, Haiti, a country riven with economic and political crises for decades, has the attention of the world – and it is a rare opportunity for meaningful reconstruction. In Port-au-Prince, Washington and beyond, there is now a real appetite for a new beginning. The mission, Bill Clinton said on Sunday, would be a failure "if all we do is get them back to the way they were the day before the earthquake".

Q: So what should happen first?

A: The most fundamental challenge will be building new accommodation for Haitians who lost their homes. In a country with no building code, and where the vast majority of people are without insurance, that will be hugely demanding. Architects say that new regulations will be essential as a means of ensuring that the poor quality concrete structures of the past are replaced by more secure alternatives – and that fewer buildings should be placed in vulnerable spots on unstable hillsides. But with many displaced people already beginning work on their own makeshift houses in the absence of a more co-ordinated approach, that goal looks like a long shot.

Q: How can it be ensured that new buildings are safer?

A: Foreign governments and institutions like the International Monetary Fund are providing most of the money and they are already putting in place strict conditions to govern how it is spent. Mr Clinton, the UN's special envoy to Haiti, argues that donors should "condition release of their funds based on construction meeting certain standards". He said: "I think the Haitian government will welcome that. They want to build a modern country."

Q: Is the government capable of doing the job?

A: At the moment, it isn't capable of anything much. For now, the state should be circumvented, says Stuart Bowen, a veteran of reconstruction work in Iraq. "At this stage the delivery of aid should be direct and not through the government," he told the Washington Post. "And that process should be maintained for a while, until there is a sense of stability."

In the long run, though, building a viable state will be essential to getting the country back on its feet. Indeed, before the earthquake struck Haiti was enjoying a rare period of good news. The economy grew by 2.5 per cent last year despite the global recession. If foreign donors are to try to kick-start that progress once more, many development experts believe that a string of anti-corruption conditions will be necessary; others, though, are angry that a country in crisis should be faced with harsh conditions to get desperately needed money. An emergency IMF loan of $100m (£61.5m) last week, for instance, was only given on condition of a public sector pay freeze.

Q: Are there better ways to boost the country's development?

A: One critical millstone has hung around Haiti's neck for years: huge payments on servicing its foreign debt, of more than $50m a year. While the IMF has already cancelled $1.2bn of the $1.9bn Haiti owed, France has started moves to speed up relief of debt to other rich countries. So long as Haiti is hobbled with that hefty obligation, broader economic improvements look almost impossible.

And for all the money that the US has spent in Haiti – some $800m during the past five years – there are reasons to believe that its actions have not always improved things. Subsidies paid to American farmers mean 75 per cent of rice eaten in Haiti is from the US – in a country that grew all its own until the 1980s. The result is unemployment for farmers, and mass urban migration – to the very areas that were devastated last week. If nothing else, that history has galvanised a sense that the moment has to be seized.

"It's terrible to look at it this way, but out of crisis often comes real change," said C Ross Anthony, global health director of the Rand Corporation think-tank. "The people and the institutions take on the crisis and bring forth things they weren't able to do in the past."