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Haiti: Not a hope in hell?

January 15, 2010

A common reaction to the earthquake in Haiti has been to talk about the country as “cursed”. This could give the impression that what happened is somehow beyond human capacity to forestall. But one of the most chilling aspects of the earthquake is the lack of surprise expressed by experts from a number of domains about the scale of the destruction and loss of life.

In his 2009 Mallet-Milne Lecture on The Seismic Future of Cities, Roger Bilham stated that “It should be appalling to the people of the world that in 2009, more than a 100 years after earthquake resistant construction began to be understood and implemented by engineers, that it is possible to write an article forecasting large numbers of future earthquake fatalities from the collapse of cities.

For Professor Bilham and his colleagues, geophysics is only part of the explanation. Loss of life on the scale seen in Haiti is not “natural” in the modern world. A similar quake that hit the Japanese city of Kobe in 1995 caused widespread destruction and even if it killed 6434 people, casualties in this densely-populated area were far less than in Port-au-Prince.

Why did Haiti’s capital collapse? It’s on a well-known seismic fault line and has experienced shocks before, but nothing seemed to be built to resist earthquakes. Even the presidential palace was destroyed. For Bilham, it’s a political question. “In some cities… corruption has effectively replaced governance… Officials and politicians may find themselves being pressured to exercise flexibility in the interpretation of building codes. The resulting structures may contain numerous violations, to be discovered only when the structure collapses.”

But what does governance mean here? An OECD report cited Haiti as a “paradigmatic example” of the severest form of fragile state, where the legitimacy of the state is challenged, where the states’ capabilities and resources are low and where there are only rudimentary or fractured political processes for handling the resultant tensions.

Is there any hope in the face of such desolation? In any case, there are lessons to be learned, and questions to be asked.

Environmental protection is not a luxury, to be postponed until a country crosses some economic threshold. Over half of Haiti used to be covered in forests. Today, that figure has fallen to only 2%.

Deforestation has exposed the soil to erosion and aggravated the impact of mudslides. It has contributed to the impoverishment of rural communities and driven people from the land to overcrowded slums. Port au Prince’s population is now put at over 2 million, up from 700,000 at the 2003 census.

But you can’t protect forests if their wood is the only fuel people can afford. Haiti ranks 164th in the world for electricity consumption.

Economic development is vital too. Haiti, the “Jewel of the Antilles”, was once the richest colony in the world, providing half of France’s gross national product in the 1750s. But even before the earthquake, per capita gross national income was under $500, just over a dollar a day. It has achieved none of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Why is it so poor?

The answer is historical and political as well as economic.

Haiti’s wealth was created by slaves under a system that was so brutal that being sent to Haiti was a threat similar to that of being “sold down the river” brandished later by US slavers.

A revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture defeated the colonial armies, freed the slaves and won the country its independence in 1804, but at a huge price.

An international boycott ruined the economy, and the situation was made worse by a debt contracted to France in 1838 to finance compensation for slave owners. Worth over $20 billion in today’s terms, this wasn’t paid off until 1922 and seriously damaged post-colonial development.

The US invaded in 1915, partly out of fear of growing German influence, partly at the urging of banks owed money by Haiti. The country became a US protectorate and although the army was withdrawn in 1934, Washington controlled Haiti’s finances until 1947.

A number of development plans were launched, and some progress was achieved, but the country has constantly been handicapped by massive debt, corrupt governments and outside interference.

Much of the money owed is odious debt – a term designating loans granted to (and usually stolen or squandered by) dictators.

Even when the dictator goes, this debt remains, although some of it may be cancelled by multilateral donors under certain conditions. Haiti met these conditions and in September 2009, qualified for cancellation of its external debt obligations under the World Bank-IMF Heavily Indebted Poor Country HIPC initiaitve. This however does not cover the half billion dollars owed to the Inter-American Development Bank.

What can be done? There are already calls to cancel Haiti’s debt, and this would be an important first step.

International aid will be needed for years to come to rebuild the country. This is not beyond the means of the “international community”, but it should not turn into a competition for influence or diplomatic point scoring.

Aid experts like to talk about “ownership”. Behind the jargon lies an important idea – people in distress should not be abandoned, but they should not be treated like children who don’t know what they need. The most successful development stories are those written by the protagonists themselves.

The OECD headquarters are in Paris. Donations from France are being centralised by the Fondation de France. You can contribute here.

Oxfam and other NGOs are already mobilising. Please send us links for your country.
Sustainable Development

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