Rebuilding Haiti Means More Than Bricks and Mortar

The mobilization inside the United States—among the military, aid groups, the public—to help Haiti has been quick and generous. Hopefully, alongside peacekeepers and other international partners, we can help the Haitians stabilize their country and reduce human suffering. But then the work of rebuilding will begin, as the U.S. helps them to reconstruct their shattered capital and economy. And it will probably not go well. Not because the destruction was so massive (that is a surmountable problem), but because Washington policymakers unfamiliar with development practice still don't understand how to help the Haitians erect a functioning civil society, private economy, and competent government. It's not about reconstruction and humanitarian aid; it's about institutions. And without them, Haiti will remain a failed state.

In a recent book, Violence and Social Orders, Nobel Prize–winning economist Douglass North and John Wallis and Barry Weingast explain what distinguishes rich countries from poor ones. It's not just wealth, education, or resources. It's about the density of legitimate institutions—groups to administer pubic service, keep public order, ensure the rule of law, and build a market economy. The United States, as de Tocqueville first noticed on his travels in America during its youth, is probably more densely packed with institutions per capita than any society in world history, helping to make it wealthy and so stable. North and his colleagues argue that institutions challenge and help governments: they allow societies to negotiate conflicting interests peaceably, maintain public accountability and transparency, conduct impersonal market transactions essential for rapid economic growth, and provide government services to everyone equally. In more traditional societies, powerful elites limit groups like these that check their power; and they use the government (and its treasury) to build patronage networks, restrict economic activity to their own class, and hand out public services to their own supporters to keep them loyal. If we could measure it, Haiti probably would have the lowest number of legitimate institutions of any country in the Western hemisphere, and maybe the world.

A National Academy of Public Administration report of 2006 on why foreign aid has failed in Haiti summarized general donor opinion, which has "variously characterized Haiti as a nightmare, predator, collapsed, failed, failing, parasitic, kleptocratic, phantom, virtual or pariah state." One World Bank study of Haitian governance reports that "30% of civil service were phantom employees…One ministry had 10,000 employees, only about half of whom were ever at work." A USAID evaluation of the Haitian government institutions reported they are "characterized by lack of trained personnel; no performance based personnel system, no accepted hiring, firing, and promotion procedures; heavy top down management; and a decided lack of direction." In a word, Haiti was a failed state before the earthquake. The country needs more than rebuilding.

But the crucial idea in Violence and Social Orders—that once basic human needs are met, institutions are more important for a functioning country—is not driving Western aid. Increasingly, the groups who purvey it have focused on the delivery of services, not the building of institutions. For its part, Washington takes reconstruction literally (bricks and mortar alone). It's a truism that ports, roads, sewage, schools, health clinics, bridges, and clean water are preconditions to a stable country and expanding economy. But if that's all we do, Haiti will simply revert to dysfunction, and whatever is reconstructed will begin to crumble over time without institutions to ensure maintenance. (Even before the quake, Haiti's public services, where they existed at all, were perilously close to collapse.)

Unfortunately, institution building is much harder than reconstruction. Political pressure from Washington since the end of the Cold War, has demanded speed, visibility, and measurable results in state-building exercises. But functional institutions will take a decade or more, their successes will be undramatic, and many will be difficult to quantify. Aid efforts in Haiti in the past have focused too much on delivering public services through nongovernmental organizations and international groups instead of the trying to reform the Haitian institutions that should be delivering these services. But simply providing aid funds through Haitian government ministries, however—the newest international-aid fad—will strengthen the predatory forces that control them. Paul Collier, in his book the Bottom Billion says this kind of aid in a failed state will have the same affect oil revenues do in poor countries—it encourages looting of the treasury. Only a massive shift of personnel, power, and resources within Haitian society will break the stranglehold of predators. How do we do this?

Building new institutions will require competent and honest Haitian leadership. Haitian President René Préval has shown technical skill in improving governance during the last two years, but he has been invisible in the post-quake humanitarian-aid effort, which has damaged him politically. He will need help, and one of the best ways of generating that help in a country that has had a chronic leadership deficit is to bring prosperous, educated Haitians on a large scale back from the diaspora to help him build new Haitian institutions. Haitians in America and Canada are well known as upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial, and hardworking. They could be the vanguard of a new Haitian governing leadership to reform the corrupt and dysfunctional system.

At the same time, the Unites States should bring emerging Haitian leaders to American universities and colleges. The most successful institution-building program ever used by USAID, the U.S. government's main foreign development arm, was its scholarship program, which brought 18,000 students a year to American colleges and universities. Those scholarships have been phased out over time because Washington regulators demanded rapid and visible results, which education does not produce. But scholarships engender long-term transformation, because graduates usually return to their home countries from the United States as reformers. Bringing promising Haitians to the U.S. for graduate programs (with safeguards to ensure they return to Haiti afterward) can complement the return of the Haitian diaspora in building new institutions.

Another imperative is security, without which the exodus of educated professionals will continue. Criminal gangs linked to the drug trade have grown more powerful over the past few years and are behind the growing violence in Haitian society. Unless this trend is arrested, any effort to build new institutions will fail. This means that a large U.N. peacekeeping and police presence with a more aggressive mandate will be needed to keep order for at least a decade before this institution-building effort can show results. It will take U.N. and aid agencies a decade to help the Haitians build the local military and police forces necessary for a functioning criminal-justice system.

Once those programs are in place, Haiti can begin to lure investment. Beyond the terrible loss of human life from the earthquake, the greatest invisible devastation is the destruction of jobs, businesses, and economic activity. International business and capital markets do not invest money in failed states, and, without that investment, job creation, and economic growth (on the scale necessary to transform Haitian society) are impossible. And without economic growth, new Haitian institutions will be unsustainable, lacking the local tax revenue to fund them when aid ends. So even if reconstruction goes well, Haiti's failed-state status offers the twin economic challenges of mass unemployment and a poor business climate. And private capital must flow to new institutions in the private sector; it cannot all be focused on the Haitian state. USAID ran successful economic-growth programs for just that purpose in Indonesia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and El Salvador.

If Western countries want to end the dysfunctional cycle of crisis and failed Band-Aid development in Haiti, tractors and concrete will not be enough. Only an institution-based model of reconstruction will succeed.

Natsios is professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University, former USAid administrator, and is writing a book called Thinking About Foreign Aid.

Join the Discussion