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Haiti's Key Building Project Is a Functional Government, U.Va. Expert Says

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Brevy Cannon:

January 29, 2010 — Relief and rescue workers from around the world have poured into Haiti following the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake. Airlifts of food and supplies and medical treatment are gradually reaching the roughly 1.5 million Haitians displaced from their homes, all while the Haitian government has remained largely silent and incapacitated.

Haiti absolutely needs this international assistance for the immediate future, said Robert Fatton, a University of Virginia politics professor and Haiti expert who was born and raised there.

But, according to Fatton, Haiti's long-term future depends on building a viable government – an undertaking that has been undermined in the past by the large role of non-governmental organizations in Haiti and economic policies promoted by the international community.

More than 10,000 non-governmental organizations operate in Haiti (second only to India in per-capita NGOs), some for more than 30 years. Their strong presence means foreign assistance has flowed mostly through the NGOs, bypassing Haiti's government and leaving emasculated state institutions. "After the earthquake and even before the earthquake," Fatton said, "Haiti had an empty shell of a state, incapable of being a responsible government."

Haiti's government is so incapacitated that it cannot even supervise the coordination and management of the influx of international assistance, he said, citing as an example the Port-au-Prince airport and port, which have been controlled by American military forces since the quake. "We are de facto, an utterly dependent country," Fatton said.

Haiti's often-frustrated struggle for effective self-governance has been hindered by economic policies promoted by the international community, he explained.

Since the mid-1980s, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other international lenders have pushed Haiti to discard any barriers to "wide-open" free trade, he said, opening Haiti to a flood of imports that have eviscerated Haiti's domestic economy, which had roughly 80 percent unemployment before the earthquake (according to the government's famously unreliable estimates).

In perhaps the most striking example of the effects of these economic policies, a flood of cheap, subsidized American rice has caused the collapse of Haiti's domestic rice production, a staple crop grown for centuries in the fertile Haitian soils and conducive tropical climate, he said. With little domestic production of staple crops to insulate Haitians against the gyrations of world commodity prices, a 2008 spike in those prices led to food riots.

This "wide-open" free trade pushed by the international community means Haiti – the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where three-quarters of the population lives on less than $2 a day – imports most of its staple foods, and exports very little of anything.

Recently there has been talk in the international community, and even at the IMF, Fatton noted, about creating a type of "Marshall Plan" for Haiti that will emphasize job creation, poverty alleviation and the creation of a vibrant agricultural sector. That would be a fundamental – and welcome – shift in approach by the international community, he said.

Marshall Plan or no Marshall Plan, Haiti's regeneration depends on building a healthy functional state, Fatton emphasized.

So how should Haiti transition from the reliance on NGOs for near-term relief and rescue work to building a more competent state? The quake's destruction has ruled out the possibility of parliamentary elections scheduled for March, Fatton noted, and raises questions about the viability of a planned presidential election in November.

Ideally, he said, the nation's grassroots organizations and representatives from all realms of Haitian society should have a national discussion of how and when to restore the electoral process, and the vision for Haiti's future government.

Fatton suggests Haiti take a page from America's New Deal under President Franklin Roosevelt, by creating jobs with massive infrastructure projects and supporting basic food production in rural areas. "After that, we can dream of other things."

The main concern for the near term is feeding the population and re-establishing a modicum of normalcy.

Haiti must build strong, effective state institutions, or it will remain forever dependent on the mercy and generosity of charitable organizations, stuck in a vicious circle of dependence rekindled by any crisis, whether a political coup, natural disaster or crop failure, Fatton said.

The earthquake may have sown some seeds of a more effective state by fostering social solidarity, Fatton said. The quake was a "great equalizer" because Haitians of all classes and ethnic backgrounds suffered devastating losses, both personal and material.

In the wake of the quake, Haiti's richest and poorest slept together in the streets and under makeshift tents, "to some extent breaking down the social apartheid in Haiti between elites and the very poor." Hopefully, that greater sense of solidarity will carry forward into the future and help generate a more equitable society, he noted. "So out of the rubble there might be hope, if those signs of community solidarity are really enhanced by the process of reconstruction."

— By Brevy Cannon

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