Nearshore Americas

Envisoning a ‘New Haiti’ Emerging from the Rubble


An interview with Mark Schneider, Senior Vice President; Special Adviser on Latin America Washington, International Crisis Group

The January 12 earthquake in Haiti was “the worst national disaster in the history of the Western Hemisphere,” says Mark L. Schneider, former Peace Corps director in the Clinton administration. “Long-term reconstruction” will last more than a decade, he says, and involve billions of dollars in aid. The objective is not just to put Haiti back together, he says, but to create “a New Haiti” with a new education system and other changes throughout the society.

You’ve been through a number of Haitian crises. Is this one the worst?

It is not only the worst natural disaster in Haiti’s history, but it is also the worst natural disaster in the history of the Western Hemisphere in terms of the number of people who have died. There have been probably some 50 percent more deaths than in any other natural disaster in the history of the hemisphere. And it hit the country in the hemisphere [that is] the least able to respond, and it hit the center of what little economic or political infrastructure there was in Haiti. So the ability of offering any kind of organized response from within Haiti was simply wiped out by the disaster itself.

The United States is taking the lead in the global rescue. Are you pleased with the American response so far?

Yes, pleased with the effort, but there is no way that this effort can be sufficient in terms of the people on the ground. There is no way that in the space of a few days you’re going to succeed with only one airport and one runway and none of the major ports functioning.

The Navy is saying it hopes to get the main port operating in a few days.

Before the earthquake there were only three cranes operating in that port. There is no way of getting relief to people who need it in any kind of time frame where people are satisfied. So there is going to be an enormous amount of frustration, desperation, and undoubtedly, people dying who wouldn’t have had to if there was adequate relief. There are [an estimated] one hundred thousand people dead. There must be several hundred thousand injured, and a million people without homes and unable to get to relief.

What do you recommend?

You have to do everything humanly possible to get food, water, shelter, and medical care to people. Those are the four things you have to try to do as well as possibly can be done. I saw that President Obama had called up military reserves to help in Haiti. That’s the right kind of action to take. You said rightly that the United States is taking the lead, but the United Nations has a peacekeeping mission there and should also be a crucial part of this response. But the civilian side of the UN operation, headed by Hedi Annabi, was wiped out by the earthquake. I met with Annabi, who died in the earthquake, in New York four weeks ago, and I knew many of the other people who were killed. And so the United Nations management structure is gone. You have a major gap in the international community’s ability to act quickly.

This is a long-term reconstruction. People need to be thinking about decades.

What about the Haitian government? It is almost invisible, isn’t it?

Okay, you step back and ask: What’s happened to the Ministry of Public Health? Its building collapsed. The Ministry of Education collapsed. The Ministry of Transportation collapsed; the Agriculture Ministry collapsed. The presidential palace collapsed. You had a virtual beheading of the Haitian government infrastructure. We don’t know how many officials died. Let’s talk about the Haitian national police. In the past four years, the government [of President Rene Preval], the international community, led by the United Nations, recruited, vetted, and trained about six thousand civilian police. They have virtually disappeared. We don’t know how long it will take to get them back. They are all out trying to care for their families. You have a major breakdown.

The U.S. Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, apparently fairly successfully. Should U.S. forces take over the running of the country, the distribution of aid, and ensuring security?

No. What you need is a partnership in the international community. Don’t forget there are seven thousand UN military troops on the ground and two thousand United Nations police on the ground. Right now they are more than the United States has forces on the ground. There is a need to do something together. The other aspect that you’re going to see is some kind of effort to draw Haiti into political cooperation. You saw Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meeting with President Preval last week urging him to do more to the best of his ability. But there’s an awful lot the United States and the United Nations are going to have to do in this sense for the Haitians.

Should the United States say this is a long-term project to revive Haiti?

Absolutely. This is a long-term reconstruction. People need to be thinking about decades.  Let’s take the Ministry of Education: What you need to do now is not just put back the same bricks. You need to build a new education policy in Haiti. Some 40 percent of the kids weren’t in school before the earthquake. And 80 percent of those who were in school were in private schools where they had to pay and those schools weren’t very good. There’s very little public education. You need to have a commitment to a public school education system that offers a decent education to the kids in Haiti. That needs to be built. So you need to have education experts from around the world come and partner with the new Ministry of Education in Haiti.

And so you need buildings, housing. Obviously if you’re going to start all over again that’s an immense process.

It also has to be done better. You don’t want to recreate a system that puts everything in Port-au-Prince. You want to try to do things around the country. As you know, in response to the earthquake, a lot of people have gone back to their home villages and you want to strengthen that and provide some reinforcement investment out there so that they don’t have to come back to Port-au-Prince.

How much do you think this will cost the United States?

A year ago there was an agreement about poverty reduction strategy. Now you have to amend that and say we have to first put down a foundation for economic investment, job creation, and recreation of public services.

This assessment hasn’t been completed yet. The United Nations and the World Bank will do an assessment. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch swept Central America.  There was an assessment of damage of $6 billion. The international community came up with about $4 billion and the United States provided about $2 billion of that. There were only nine thousand people who died in Hurricane Mitch. We’re talking about one hundred thousand people who have died here, and we’re talking about a multiple of the estimate of that $6 billion in terms of an estimate of the damage. I guess it will be a multiple of the $6 billion in what it will cost over the next five years to begin to reconstruct and give Haiti some hope for the future.

One of the problems is that Haiti’s government is seen as ineffective; there is corruption, there’s dictatorship. How do you get around that?

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One thing that’s clear is that there will not be the same Haitian fixed bureaucratic system. They will have to come up with a new system, and hopefully in the process they will incorporate accountability mechanisms that will give you a better shot at getting decent public services as well as strengthening private investment.

So you think this decades-long effort will need to be a worldwide endeavor?

The key coordinating entity should be the United Nations. There’s a Security Council resolution, there’s a UN special fund for Haiti. You don’t want to recreate the wheel there. The people on the ground can use this at least as the base for an international reconstruction effort.

I have the feeling watching some of the TV footage that what the United States is lacking in Haiti is a sort of General Patton to just take charge. There seems to be no real authority on the ground.

There is. The coordinator for the U.S. government should be the U.S. ambassador. But you don’t want it to be a U.S. alone effort. There’s got to be some way to bring in the Haitian government. Within a short time there will be an effort made to have a single U.S. lead coordinator–it may be the ambassador–linked to the new UN special representative and President Preval. They’ll have to sit down and work out all this out this week, next week, next month. They will need to pull together a donor conference based on an assessment of what the needs are.

You mean from this disaster to produce “a New Haiti”?

Exactly. A year ago there was an agreement about poverty reduction strategy. Now you have to amend that and say we have to first put down a foundation for economic investment, job creation, and recreation of public services. And there has to be an extension of services into the rural areas. Some 70 percent of Haiti still is rural.

Kirk Laughlin

Kirk Laughlin is an award-winning editor and subject expert in information technology and offshore BPO/ contact center strategies.

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