How to Rebuild Haiti

More than 50 nations rallied to Haiti's side at the United Nations' headquarters yesterday during an International Donors' Conference, which exceeded all of its fund-raising goals: the pledges add up to more than $5 billion for the next 18 months (about a billion dollars more than Haiti had asked for) and nearly $10 billion for the next five years (just a billion and half dollars shy of what U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was seeking for the entire decade). The United States pledged $1.15 billion (in addition to the $900 million or so we've already given), much of which would go toward debt relief. World leaders say the funds may be enough to finally change the fortunes of this long-tormented country. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim called it Haiti's "second independence," and Ban spoke of "wholesale national renewal… a sweeping exercise in nation-building on a scale and scope not seen in generations." The term "Haitian Renaissance" was even bandied about. But all this money won't amount to much if it's not used strategically. The next big challenge is figuring out how to apply the raised funds to fix not just Haiti's earthquake damage, but also the years of poverty and corruption that have plagued the nation—and in some way, led to the mass devastation caused by the quake.

The Haitian government and the international community will have a series of balancing acts to perform in the coming months as they rise to meet those mandates, not the least of which is ensuring that the money actually gets to Haiti. Former President Bill Clinton, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti—who in the immediate wake of the disaster was charged with ensuring that donor countries fulfilled their financial promises to the beleaguered country—said yesterday, "I was a failure at that." Only 30 percent of the money committed before yesterday's conference has actually been dispersed, he said.

But let's assume that countries do honor the pledges made yesterday. For at least the next 18 months, those working to improve Haiti (the Haitian government, nongovernmental organizations, the international community) will have to toggle between emergency relief and long-term development. In the short term, that means sticking to the basics: clearing rubble, expanding access to decent health care and safe drinking water, and building transitional housing for more than a million Haitians rendered homeless by the Jan. 12 quake. Some 500,000 people face a particularly urgent need for housing: officials say the tent cities they have built don't stand a chance against the coming hurricane season, which usually begins in May. On top of that, they will have to figure out how a country where 10 percent of the population is homeless can possibly hold legitimate elections, which are also supposed to take place in a few months.

In the longer term, stakeholders have listed some loftier goals, all designed to break the cycle of poverty and dependency on foreign aid. The key objectives:

Restoring Haiti's natural environment: As noted earlier, it's no coincidence that Haiti is both the poorest and most environmentally degraded country in the west; its environmental and economic woes are bound to one another by an insidious feedback loop. And for the first time, world leaders are acknowledging that to fix one, we must fix the other.

Facilitating private-sector growth: Representatives of the private sector pointed out that 90 percent of Haitian businesses are informal—a system that has produced bankruptcy at the top and poverty at the bottom. Training programs for the Haitian people, and vigorous enforcement of tax laws by Haitian officials, would go a long way toward formalizing the Haitian economy, they said. Additionally, Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim proposed that all World Trade Organization member nations offer duty-free, quota-free access to Haitian goods to help spur investment and sustained growth. The bottom line here is that any hope for that Haitian renaissance will rest squarely on the ability of the Haitian economy to provide Haitian jobs.

Helping Haitians achieve food self-sufficiency: While 50 percent of the Haitian populace works in agriculture, up to 80 percent of some crops are imported. Over the past few decades, owing to a confluence of soil degradation and U.S. food policies, the country has lost the ability to feed itself. The E.U. in particular spoke of investing in agriculture and rural development. But Former President Clinton also said, "We should change all of our policies, not just in Haiti, but throughout the world to make food self-sufficiency possible."

Educating the masses and empowering women: As several officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted yesterday, the key to many of these ambitions will be education and the empowerment of Haitian women. "We've spoken a lot of infrastructure," Haitian President René Préval said in opening remarks yesterday. "Let us not forget that education is the essential prerequisite to development." Rebuilding schools and expanding access to education will be essential provisions of any larger plan that aims to put Haiti in the hands of Haitians. Plans to create services for victims of gender-based violence, and establish dedicated health centers for women and girls are also in the works.

Those longer-term goals will necessitate a second balancing act—between the mostly urban areas that were hardest hit by the quake (namely the capital city of Port-au-Prince), and the mostly rural rest of Haiti, where a majority of the country's 9 million people live and to where some 700,000 earthquake victims have fled to. Former President Clinton said that decentralization—distributing efforts between these two constituencies—was a key component of the Haitian plan; he called on those interested in development projects outside of Port-au-Prince not to abandon those plans.

There are a lot of moving parts, and still much to work out. "Building Haiti back better," the rallying cry adopted by many at yesterday's conference, will require the kind of sustained attention and continued prioritization that the world has been so bad at providing Haiti. In fact, before the conference was even over, some journalists had already turned their attention elsewhere. During a question-and answer-session, they pressed Secretary Clinton not on her commitment to Haiti, but on the nuclear situation in Iran. President Préval was led to ask, "Do I need to develop a nuclear program for Haiti, so that we come back to talking about Haiti?" Sadly, the answer may be yes.

Join the Discussion