Country director for international aid organization Oxfam and former Agriculture Minister for Haiti, Philippe Mathieu is still living in a tent outside his home while waiting for it to be repaired, ten months after the earthquake.
Photograph by: Natasha Fillion, The Gazette
How do you fix a failed state? How can the world help a nation in wretched disrepair, unable to feed, educate, employ or heal the majority of its people, become self-sufficient and capable of giving its citizens decent lives?
The short answer, according to one school of thought gaining currency in international development circles, is bureaucrats. Train and hire lots and lots of bureaucrats. And use them to bolster and maintain the institutions that manage the endless day-to-day needs of providing potable water, health care, schooling, land titles, policing and justice.
Foreign governments and NGOs can build all the roads, hospitals and schools they want in Haiti, Andrew S. Natsios, the former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Aid, said in an interview with The Gazette. But without a functioning public service in place to manage them, those roads, hospitals and schools are doomed to fail.
“Clearly, port facilities, roads, bridges, schools, health clinics and water systems (which were already crumbling before the earthquake) must be rebuilt,” Natsios said in his testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on Haiti last May. “But, if that is the extent of our reconstruction efforts, then Haiti will simply revert to its failed state status and whatever is reconstructed will begin to crumble over time without institutions to ensure maintenance.”
The magnitude of the tragedy surrounding January’s earthquake, which killed more than 230,000 people and left 1.3 million homeless, is in many ways due to Haiti’s lack of institutions -a man-made tragedy. Buildings were poorly constructed with shoddy materials on unstable land, with no government system to inspect them, no legal system to punish builders, no insurance system to allow citizens to bury and rebuild. A similar magnitude quake in Chile that occurred six weeks after Haiti’s resulted in just 500 deaths, due in large part to Chile’s push to build earthquake resistant buildings. Chile is considered among Latin America’s best-governed countries.
The problem, Natsios said, is that while rebuilding roads and schools is relatively easy, creating institutions -a functioning ministry of health, for example -is complex, costly and can take decades. It is also risky, as Haiti’s political instability could destroy much of the work done, as it has in the past. Humanitarian food aid and health care make up the majority of foreign assistance to Haiti. Compared with handing out bags of rice to the starving or building a hospital, the work that goes into building institutions -educating workers, bettering management systems, improving transparency to limit corruption, developing clear hiring and promotion practices based on merit -is not very visible. The benefits can also be hard to quantify. All of these elements make it difficult for the political leaders of foreign nations, who have to justify their expenses to their taxpayers and voters, to invest heavily in institution building.
But as Haiti slowly rebuilds after the earthquake, development experts warn that reconstructing infrastructure without addressing the country’s governance issues could be akin to throwing the money into a bottomless pit. In Haiti in the Balance: Why Foreign Aid Has Failed and What We Can Do About It, author Terry Buss notes that unlike many failed states, Haiti has received billions of dollars in foreign support, along with the aid of thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the presence of UN security troops. International governments and organizations gave more than $5 billion in foreign aid between 1990 and 2005, yet the standard of living in Haiti dropped in that period.
“Aid shortcomings likely originated because donors collectively fail to deal with political instability and poor governance as the most important drivers of failure, from which all other negative consequences would follow,” Buss wrote.
Businesses, Buss noted, do not invest in failed states, buy their exports, or start companies there. Without investment and jobs, there is little tax revenue with which to pay for civil servants to run the state. It is a vicious circle.
In the absence of institutions, NGOs have moved in to fill the void -well-intentioned, for the most part, but also a crutch the Haitian government has come to rely on, at the expense of creating its own civil service networks that could oversee the needs of the whole populace. NGOs provide 75 per cent of health care in Haiti.
The problem has become even more dire today. The earthquake killed 16,000 civil servants, more than 20 per cent of the country’s total public administration workforce. (A cynical Haitian joke grounded in truth notes that those who were killed were the good civil servants -the ones who actually showed up to work, or bothered to stay until 4:53 p.m., when the earthquake struck).
Most of the ministry buildings, with their tax receipts and property titles and legal records, were destroyed in the quake. Most of the government ministers were killed.
Ten months after the earthquake, Philippe Mathieu, the country’s former agriculture minister and now the Haiti director for the Quebec branch of international aid organization Oxfam, is still living in a tent beside his home. Repairs are needed to secure his house, but repairs are slow in coming, even for a former agriculture minister.
Asked how a lack of public service institutions has affected his country, he offers this example: In his district of upper Delmas in Port-au-Prince, there are now about 60 tent camps for the homeless. Some house as many as 600 people, yet many camps have not reported any cases of diarrhea for months. Camp residents have organized themselves to ensure water delivered to the cisterns is treated regularly with chlorine, and tested to make sure it is free of bacteria and hasn’t been over chlorinated.
“People realize this, that the water is better than before the earthquake,” Mathieu said. He is part of a group trying to get clean water to the entire district. Except they can’t because many of the pipes are broken, leaking water out and letting filth in, and the pumping capacity isn’t strong enough to get the water up to the higher regions in hilly Port-au-Prince. The organizing committee can’t find the plans for the aqueduct system to tell them where the pipes are located -either because the records were destroyed in the quake, or because they never existed in the first place.
“Before the earthquake, water was purchased -people had to pay for it. . . . All countries get treated water. Why can we not do this in Haiti? You see the government has no global idea of how to manage the country.
“As a Haitian, this is what bothers me -there are no real plans. It’s like all Haitians have the capacity to think, but they think only for themselves.
“We will never get the people out of the camps and back to their homes because they won’t have water -the conditions will be worse than in the camps.”
The hardships of the average Haitian’s life are difficult to fathom for residents of comfortable nations like Canada. Three-quarters of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and more than half live in extreme poverty on less than $1 a day, Buss notes. Half the population of 9 million has no access to potable water, and 90 per cent don’t have electricity. Half the population can’t read, and less than one quarter of rural children go to school.
Two examples of the impact of the lack of public administration on the lives of Haitians: Eighty per cent of the schools are private so many Haitians can’t afford to go, and they’re of “dismal quality anyway,” Buss writes. And only 24 per cent of pregnancies are attended by a trained health professional -most Haitian women give birth outside of a hospital or clinic, without medical help, reports the International Monetary Fund.
According to the UN Development Program, Haiti ranks at 154th out of 177 countries on its Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, education and standard of living. Every country below Haiti is in sub-Saharan Africa, and “Haiti ranks at the average of all sub-Saharan African countries,” Buss notes. The nations of the Caribbean and Latin America, Haiti’s geographical cousins, rank much higher.
How Haiti came to this miserable state of governance is the stuff of tragic history, foreign interventionism and chronic political instability. The only slave colony to win its independence from its colonial rulers through armed revolt, Haiti became an international pariah after becoming a free nation in 1804. It was forced to pay the equivalent of $22 billion in reparations to France for that country’s “losses” in revenue from its slave-operated coffee and sugar plantations, a debt that was only cleared in 1947 after more than a century of payments and hobbles the country’s development to this day. It was the victim of numerous economic blockades by foreign powers trying to control its lucrative export trade, especially by the United States, which did not want Haiti’s example inciting slave revolutions on its own territories.
Meanwhile, the Haitian revolution gave rise to two distinct populations: a small urban elite and a Creole-speaking majority of subsistence farmers. “The mercantile elite and thus the state derived their income from taxing the export of the peasant surplus, via custom houses,” says the CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, a Massachusetts-based non-profit research centre. “The structure of this economic division . . . gave shape to the extractive, predatory nature of the state that has lasted into the present.”
The state itself was volatile, with its leaders more intent on preserving power and fighting with parliament than ensuring the well-being of its citizens, especially those living in rural regions. Of its 55 elected presidents since 1806, Buss writes, only nine completed their full term -the rest were overthrown, killed or died in office. Such instability does not lend itself to the creation of a stable, well-functioning public administration.
What was created, as is the case in most developing nations, was a patrimonial state -“a state in which the power of the government and even the private sector is in the hands of an elite that uses the levers of economic and political power to retain control,” said Natsios, the former administrator of USAID, the United States government’s main agency for providing international assistance, and now a professor of foreign policy at Georgetown University in Washington. “I don’t mean necessarily repressive control. Through patronage jobs, contracts, monopolistic control of the economy -they develop patronage networks.”
Government ministries, Natsios said, don’t necessarily do ministry work. “The government hires people who are part of networks, sort of like tribal chiefs, and they have followers and you basically give the followers paid jobs. They don’t necessarily show up or have qualifications, but they remain loyal to the regime.
“That is characteristic of a lot of poor countries, but Haiti is the most thoroughly patrimonial state in Latin America.”
A World Bank study found that 30 per cent of civil service workers were phantom employees. One ministry had 10,000 employees, only about half of whom were ever at work.
“People think it’s corruption,” Natsios said. “It’s not corruption — people are using the system as a glue that holds the society together.”
That being said, corruption is endemic -Transparency International ranked Haiti as among the fifth most corrupt countries in the world in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
Natsios refers to the recent book Violence and Social Orders, written by Nobel-prize winning economist Douglass North as well as John Wallis and Barry Weingast, in which the authors say it is the density of institutions that distinguishes rich from poor nations. Countries like America and Canada have groups that administer public service, keep public order, ensure the rule of law and build a market economy. Organizations, the authors note, keep governments and societies in check by controlling conflicting interests of various groups in an impersonal manner, maintaining public accountability and transparency, and on the economic side “ensure open entry and competition in many markets, free movements of goods and individuals,” and use the creation of institutions to promote opportunities, protect property rights and control violence. Free markets spur the economy and aid political stability, the authors write, which in turn allows governments to provide services.
More traditional societies, like Haiti, have powerful elites that limit these types of institutions because they impede their power -instead, they create patronage networks through the government to restrict economy to their own class and hand out public service jobs to their own supporters to keep them loyal. In these societies, it is who you know that counts, whereas in institutionalized societies, it is largely impartial bureaucracies that make decisions based on impersonal regulations, equal to all.
In Haiti, public service is not a popular profession, due mainly to low wages, especially compared with what could be earned in the private sector. There’s a lack of skilled people to fill the jobs, anyway -80 per cent of Haiti’s college graduates flee their homelands for the brighter future of elsewhere. Less than one per cent of Haiti’s population is employed in the public sector, as compared with two per cent in Africa and more than seven per cent in many developed nations. The lack translates into gridlock in all areas, including economic -a World Bank study found that the average time to start a new business was 25 days in the most developed countries, 75 days in Latin America, and more than a year in Haiti. It was also relatively much more expensive.
“Without formal institutions capable of providing the enforcement mechanisms necessary to decrease risk and uncertainty, businesses will not pursue economic opportunities,” Natsios said. “Thus any effort to build new institutions must incorporate private sector development; it cannot solely target the Haitian state in a vacuum.”
Without a proper public sector, the IMF notes, Haiti is even unable to properly manage the money that is flowing in from donors.
How then, do you fix a broken public sector? One way is to ensure a good portion of the $11 billion in aid promised to Haiti is earmarked for civil service reform, creating jobs and helping to institute an incentive and accountability program that would reward and motivate its employees. Natsios urges incentives for Haiti’s vast educated diaspora, numbering more than 2 million in the United States and Canada alone, to be allowed to return, if only temporarily, to help its country rebuild. He also called on the U.S. government to reinstate a university scholarship program that used to bring 18,000 students a year to American schools to be trained, with the proviso that they had to return to their homelands to work and rebuild.
There are signs of hope. In the decade before the earthquake, Haiti made efforts to improve its governance issues, saw a decrease in gang violence and lawlessness and experienced five straight years of economic growth. After the earthquake, Haiti’s government presented its Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti, which focused heavily on improving governance and decentralizing services, giving powers to smaller, provincial governments spread throughout the country, instead of concentrating them all in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Haiti and the international community have set up the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) to oversee allocation and spending of all donations over $500,000 and deal with administrative issues like issuing permits to build hospitals and schools, as well as carry out economic development projects. Included among more than $1.7 billion in projects approved by the IHRC in August for new roads, housing and agriculture, was $25 million to go toward a project to help the government provide services and increase transparency and reduce corruption.
In Montreal earlier this month for a conference to promote business ties between her countryand Quebec, Haitian Commerce and Industry Minister Josseline Colimon Fethiere said the government is aware of its shortcomings, and trying to address them. The government has created lists of its remaining employees, those who were not killed or fled the country, and continues to employ and pay them as long as they show up to work. Training programs are planned, as are improved computer systems. And the time to start a new business in Haiti has been reduced to six weeks, she pledged.
“What we’re doing is trying to rebuild the structure,” she said. “We’re making steps in the right direction.”
Now all Haiti needs, in theory, is the political stability to maintain the progress. But the ability of the country to host fair presidential elections Nov. 28 is already being put in doubt. Haiti’s electoral commission has excluded 15 candidates without giving a reason, and blocked the Lavalas Party, popular with rural voters, from running. In addition, the names of at least 230,000 dead have to be purged from the voter roles and 1.3 million homeless need to be re-registered, Newsweek reported.
In Haiti, the tragedies of the past are ever present, waiting in the wings to hobble its future.