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Haiti: what is needed for long-term recovery?

Ban Ki-moon is asking for patience as aid agencies grapple with the sheer enormity of the worst catastrophe in recent years. And journalists are asking why aid is not getting through on the scale needed, in a country where the very foundations of aid delivery have been shattered.

The fact is that Haiti has been a humanitarian crisis for ten years, and enforced dependence on the outside world is partly to blame. While the outside world struggles to get help into Haiti, the country itself has no internal resources to fill the gap. Whatever happens next, this vulnerability has to be tackled – not just to address the immediate crisis, but long-term.

ODI research shows the depths of the country’s dependence on the outside world, whether it is the money sent home by Haitian expatriates (remittances), or the imports of such basics as clothing and rice.

Before the earthquake, most Haitians – half of them living on $1 per day – couldn’t afford even these basics, plagued by the high cost of living. One of the most notable things about Haiti is that very little is actually produced in the country, with nearly everything imported and sold at high prices. It is said to be cheaper to ship in even the most common items needed on a daily basis, such as clothing, rice, salt and shoes, than buy them in Haiti itself.

In addition, nearly three out of every four households rely on the money sent home by Haitians in the USA, Canada and France, outstripping levels of foreign aid and foreign direct investment. As long ago as 2002, remittances amounted to around $650 million – around 19% of the country’s entire GDP, and dependence on these remittances has grown as the country’s overall economy has deteriorated.

The Haitian diaspora provides a lifeline to its compatriots, but that lifeline is too fragile at the best of times, much less so in a disaster. The US recession was already having an impact on this vital source of family income.

Right now, the priority has to be to get aid to the survivors. And this is happening, perhaps not as quickly as we all hoped – but aid is getting in and people will be reached. But what then? Is Haiti to find itself in a state of even greater dependence on the outside world, reeling from one disaster to the next?

As our colleagues at ALNAP have stressed in their report on lessons learned in earthquakes, it is never too soon to think about recovery. This should be part of the game plan from day one. Guided by the Haitians themselves, we now need a combined vision of what genuine recovery would look like. In addition to the obvious need for reconstruction of homes and businesses, a key priority is the rebuilding of Haitian state institutions and governance. Beyond the terrible images of a broken city and a desperate population, what is most striking is the scale of the political vacuum left by the quake. What fills this vacuum is not only critical for the recovery phase, but will also define Haiti’s future. A report on the Peruvian earthquake response from the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI reinforced the need for strong relationships between the state, NGOs and the international community. Rebuilding government is therefore critical, and this also means rebuilding the relationship between Haiti’s citizens and its rulers. The levels of mistrust that prevailed before this crisis could cripple any hope of better governance in the future. The legitimacy of Haiti’s government hangs on a thread – the international community must recognise this, and act accordingly.

As well as the importance of immediate relief and rebuilding basic state institutions, three key elements that should not be overlooked:

  • ‘Think land’. Humanitarian agencies need to be ‘thinking land’ right now, bringing in experts on land tenure to help unravel what has often been seen as a side issue in any emergency. One day people will go back to what is left of their homes. If their homes have been seized by opportunists (or by others as desperate as themselves), there is every danger of conflict.
  • Support the Haitian economy and its resilience to shocks. It is impossible to prevent earthquakes or hurricanes, but it is well within our means to support a more resilient Haitian economy. In general, the aid ‘industry’ tends to shy away from supporting exports and trade, but Haiti was already suffering from both trade and balance of payment deficits. There is a strong case for future aid that supports Haiti’s exports of coffee and sisal.
  • Invest in human capital and the service industry. Like many island states, Haiti has seen the rapid growth of its service industry, which now accounts for well over half of its GDP, far outstripping agriculture. There is a clear argument for investment in this already growing sector, and in the human capital that will drive this sector in the future.

This is a terrible disaster and as the death toll continues to mount it is hard to focus on the future. But for the survivors there has to be a promise of building back better and this means building up Haiti’s internal resources so that the country is more resilient and better able support its citizens.We must keep our sights on that goal, even as the first aid arrives.