Tackling Haiti’s Institutional Deficit

Long before the massive January 2010 earthquake reduced Port-au-Prince to rubble, Haiti ranked as the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere (Haiti's GDP per capita in 2008 was just $1176 adjusted for purchasing parity). For nearly a quarter of a century, Haitians already lived on the lowest income levels in the hemisphere. Chronic political instability and violence only compounded the problems resulting from Haiti’s poverty. Haiti’s instability –which included periods of literal absence of government—led to the U.N. Security Council’s passage of Resolution 1542, which established MINUSTAH, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti in 2004.

January’s horrific earthquake decapitated Haiti once again, further crippling the limited governance capacities that were in place.  The earthquake devastated the government’s physical infrastructure and severely affected its agencies and personnel, leaving Haiti well beyond a state of weak governance to a state of almost no governance.  But for international assistance, the Haitian government has become a “phantom state,” with no ability whatsoever to provide basic public goods or services, including fundamental physical security.

Since disaster struck, much has been discussed about how to rebuild Haiti once the immediate relief effort ends. These discussions, however, have contributed depressingly little to illuminate critical governance issues. Not only does it remain unclear how exactly the interaction between the international community and the Haitian state will be handled during the reconstruction, but also what efforts will be made to build missing institutional capacities in Haiti.

Rebuilding Haiti will require a protracted, costly, and well-coordinated effort from foreign governments, multilateral institutions and private capital. While several pieces of this effort have been proposed –ranging from preferential trade agreements to the granting of special migratory status to Haitians and including large amounts of financial resources—very little has been said as to what shape the coordination mechanism will take and the division of responsibilities between the international community and Haiti’s government. The international community seems to be tiptoeing around these issues because they pose awkward questions about limiting the powers of a sovereign state in the short run. Notwithstanding the usual platitudes about giving Haiti’s government a leadership role in the reconstruction process, it is highly doubtful that Haiti’s institutions have the ability to coordinate this effort without deep involvement by the international donors in pretty sensitive matters for the country.

Haiti needs institutions able to devise and execute simultaneously the projects required to rebuild what the earthquake took away and generate sustained growth. Those institutions need physical infrastructure and human capital. Both are hard to develop in the short run. At this point, Haiti needs financial aid, but it also desperately requires massive technical support, with experts providing the basic capabilities to implement building codes, infrastructure projects, tax collection, job-creation programs, etc. Yet, the reconstruction process should also include, among many long-term measures, incentives for highly trained Haitians to return to their country, and programs to provide training and technical preparation to Haitian civil servants. The latter may combine formal education overseas with on-the-job training working side by side with foreign experts.

All this leads to a broader point about the coordination of this complex endeavor. Several elements of the Commission for Reconstruction proposed at the Haiti Donors Conference, held in New York on March 31, appear broadly modeled upon the reconstruction authority created for Indonesia’s Aceh province in the wake of 2004 tsunami. The adoption of this model misses a crucial point: the task in Haiti is not simply of physical reconstruction. It is also a task of institutional reconstruction, so that sustainable development policies can be adopted. In this sense, the experiences of Kosovo or East Timor, where state institutions had to be built practically from scratch, might give us some valuable lessons for Haiti.

Some have decried the limitation of sovereignty that this implies as unacceptable for a long-independent country like Haiti, and denounced it as the remnant of a neo-colonial mindset. Yet, we may be facing a paradox here: heavy international interference in primary development decisions in the short run may be the only way to build institutions in Haiti; it may be the only way, that is, for this nation to gain the governance capacities that define sovereignty. Sovereignty is an elusive concept when a state radically lacks the ability to provide public goods to its citizens. Furthermore, institution building is also a key step for Haiti to achieve a higher level of economic and human development.

Thorny issues about Haiti’s governance must be tackled head on. And the sooner, the better.