The unprecedented media attention to Haiti’s recovery efforts following the 2010 earthquake quickly waned. This year’s presidential elections were a rather small blip on the media radar, and when Haiti did make the headlines, it was not necessarily for anything that would make its citizens proud.
Yet the situation in Haiti remains dire. Billions of dollars in aid have been committed and spent, but visible improvements in governance, lack of which was the main reason that the earthquake had such an impact, are just not there.
As to why – Paul Collier’s (the author of the Bottom Billion) overview of a new book by Paul Farmer on Haiti’s attempt to recover from the devastating earthquake provides some answers. In large part they boil down to the fact that history and culture matter in institutional change and improving governance is much more difficult than implementing a set of technical reforms.
It was unfortunate that Haiti had to have an election following the earthquake, which turned the attention away from rebuilding and governance improvements to political campaigning. Rife with fraud and corruption, the election further undermined the already weak trust citizens had in their government.
Similarly, proliferation of NGOs involved in all aspects of Haitian society created a double problem – NGOs themselves could not address challenges on the systematic level as the government should, yet their extensive work throughout the country undermined the ability of the government to perform its role (and this challenge in not unique to Haiti).
International aid agencies had also faced some difficulties on the ground, in part due to suspicion with which Haitian citizens treated such efforts for historical reason. The billions committed to reconstruction could not be effectively spent as the state lacked capacity and was rife with corruption, NGOs weren’t able to meet the task of large infrastructure projects on their own, and, most importantly, the chain of decision-making (and accountability) was simply not there. An effort to set up a commission to fill that decision-making void misfired – instead of bringing all the different parties together (donors, government, NGOs), the opposite happened.
Even though Haiti has been replaced in the headlines by other events – the job of rebuilding the country still seems to be at the very early stages. Much remains to be done. But Collier sees a way out, suggesting that we’ll begin to see real change in Haiti when “the governing elite will start to smell the opportunities of economic progress more strongly than the opportunities for public plunder.” This is what happened in Rwanda, perhaps this can happen in Haiti too.