Leadup to the Haiti donor conference – ‘decentralization’ as central to reconstruction

by Rhodri C. Williams

With the donor conference for Haiti’s long-term reconstruction just two days away, there has been an interesting burst of information on where joint international and national policy to deal with displacement and rebuild the country’s economic base is going. For those who have followed my previous blog posts and the broader media on Haiti, there are unlikely to be any big surprises in New York on Wednesday, and a bit more in the way of confirmations that today’s emergency response programs are translating into tomorrow’s policies.

The New York Times came out with an editorial on Saturday noting the hefty bill that will be tabled – $11.5 billion up front and $34.4 billion over the next decade – but observing that it is presented in a new spirit of modesty in which the international community, along with the Haitian government, is clearly marking its intent to do things differently and better. According to the editorial, the goal of the conference must be “to sweep out the old, bad ways of doing things, not only those of the infamously corrupt and hapless government, but also of aid and development agencies, whose nurturing of Haiti has been a manifest failure for more than half a century.”

Rightly or wrongly, the past six years, including the installation of the MINUSTAH peacekeeping force in 2004 and the elections that brought sitting President Rene Preval to power in 2006 appear to have been lumped in with previous decades of international indulgence of domestic mismanagement. To be fair to MINUSTAH and the Preval Government, the outset condition of the country shattered by last January’s earthquake could have been worse. In late 2004, for instance, the ICG was still predicting that the failure of MINUSTAH to deploy on time could render Haiti “a failed state haemorrhaging refugees to the U.S.” Three years later, by contrast, the ICG could still credibly warn of the risk of a “slide back into all too familiar chaos”, but the talk was of “consolidating stability” and building on economic reforms.

Nevertheless, a fresh and considered start is welcome, and one is almost tempted to wonder if some of the breast-beating about failed past policies attributable to many of the same actors shaping the new ones does not serve some kind of cathartic purpose. As observed here earlier, the relationship between the odd couple responsible for the forthcoming reconstruction is full of potential awkwardness. Perhaps this forced marriage between rich, confident international agencies and a weak, cash-strapped government will be more palatable if both sides draw an explicit pre-nuptial line under their past failings. And, needless to say, a note of humility may also be helpful in overcoming any residual skepticism on the part of donors and policy-makers.

On the international side, there certainly are a few grounded apologies to be made and some room for concern about the absorption of past lessons as well. As reported by Reuters here, one of the revelations during the lead-up to the conference has been former US President and current Haiti envoy Bill Clinton’s admission that pressure by the US and international financial institutions to open the Haitian economy to subsidized agricultural imports had devastated viable domestic production:

Experts now acknowledge that the influx over the past two decades of subsidized cheaper farm imports, ushered in by World Bank and International Monetary Fund free-trade policies that obliged Haiti to open its markets, delivered a virtual death blow to Haitian agriculture from which it has never recovered.

***

On a visit to quake-stricken Haiti this week, former U.S. President Bill Clinton recognized that the United States and international financial institutions like the World Bank, albeit well-intentioned, had been wrong to push developing states into opening their markets to cheap subsidized imports.

During his presidency from 1993 to 2001, he said he had signed legislation that had effectively increased the penetration of American rice into Haiti, which decimated that country’s own rice production.

“I think it was a mistake, I think it was part of a global trend that was wrong-headed,” Clinton told reporters, adding he was now looking to boost Haitian farm output by providing seeds and fertilizer through his own charitable foundation.

While Clinton’s support for the FAO’s proposed rural development plan, posted on here, appears to represent a meaningful break with past development policy, the New York Times recently reported on a less savory aspect of the reconstruction in the form of a reinvigorated ‘peacekeeper economy’ in Port au Prince. According to the Times, the vagaries of the quake have led to the city’s largest tent camp – with a population of over 40,000 – being set up on the grounds of a country club in Petionville, traditionally something of a playground for the capital’s elite. As the international relief effort becomes institutionalized (and just search ReliefWeb’s job postings by Haiti if you don’t think that is happening), this is bound to highlight some awkward contrasts:

Haiti has long had glaring inequality, with tiny pockets of wealth persisting amid extreme poverty, and Pétionville itself was economically mixed before the earthquake, with poor families living near the gated mansions and villas of the rich.

But the disaster has focused new attention on this gap, making for surreal contrasts along the streets above Port-au-Prince’s central districts. People in tent camps reeking of sewage are living in areas where prosperous Haitians, foreign aid workers and diplomats come to spend their money and unwind. Often, just a gate and a private guard armed with a 12-gauge shotgun separate the newly homeless from establishments like Les Galeries Rivoli, a boutique where wealthy Haitians and foreigners shop for Raymond Weil watches and Izod shirts.

***

And on the floor above [a] casino, a nightclub called Barak, with blaring music and Miami-priced cocktails, caters to a different elite here: United Nations employees and foreigners working for aid groups. They mingle with dozens of suggestively clad Haitian women and a few moneyed Haitian men taking in the scene.

As hundreds of displaced families gathered under tents a few yards away, the music of Barak continued into the night. A bartender could not keep up with orders for Presidente beers.

So, with all these background factors in mind, what of the plan that will be tabled on Wednesday? The full English translation of the ‘Action Plan for the Reconstruction and National Development of Haiti’ is now available for download here. It appears that the Paul Collier proposal I mentioned in an earlier post has been taken on board, with a joint international and national interim recovery commission meant to coordinate aid and evolve into a national development authority in the fullness of time. Broader involvement of Haitian civil society is another central plank, although some skepticism appears to remain in the run-up to the conference. Finally, and of most interest from a housing and land perspective, ‘decentralization’ – in the form of encouraging those displaced to the countryside to remain there – has become an explicit article of policy.

In fact, decentralization and broad-based participation are discussed with a fervor that verges on the messianic. The plan notes that the devastation wrought by the earthquake were due not only to its force by also the fragility of a society marked by high population density, inadequate building codes, bad land use practices, environmental degradation, and profound economic imbalances in which “over 65% of economic activity and 85% of fiscal revenue [were] concentrated in Port-au-Prince.” An expanded version of decentralization is then posited as the solution; ‘build back better’ on an essentially constitutional level:

To rebuild Haiti does not mean to return to the situation of January 11, on the eve of the earthquake. It is to address all these areas of vulnerability, so that never again the vagaries of nature or natural disasters inflict such suffering or cause so much damage and loss.

The proposed plan aims to go beyond a response to the damage and losses caused by the earthquake. It aims to initiate projects to act now while putting in place the conditions for addressing the structural causes that allowed this earthquake to hit the country so hard.

The situation that the country is facing is difficult but not desperate. In many respects it even provides an opportunity to unite Haitians of all classes and origins in the common task of “refounding” the country on a new footing. Nobody has been spared, and no one can pick themselves up again alone. We must build on this new solidarity which is expected to result in profound changes in behavior and attitudes,

That is why the plan that is being proposed is not solely that of the State, of the Government and of Parliament. It is that of all the sectors of Haitian society where everyone is called upon to play his role, in search of the collective interest that ultimately is the best guarantor of individual interests in an inclusive society.

While the terminology appears to be a somewhat ad hoc reaction to the circumstances of the quake, the idea behind ‘decentralization’ is not new. As late as April 2009, for instance, ICG advocated “investing more external aid in rural development to stem the flow of migrants to urban slums” in a report on the security implications of Haiti’s environmental degradation. Under the current circumstances, e.g. with rural-urban migration not only stemmed but partly reversed, retaining the current status quo seems a matter of simple common sense. As stated in the NY Times editorial:

There are too many people in Port-au-Prince. Haiti needs new population centers, less congested and more vibrant. The failure to build safe housing for earthquake survivors is a continuing tragedy; the time to start fixing it is now, far from the capital.

It is hard to take issue with the necessity of decentralization, particularly now while humanitarian workers are still scrambling to ensure safe transitional sites for those who remained in quake-affected towns. As described in the latest OCHA update, this effort continues to be slowed by delays in identifying safe and legally available sites, as well as ongoing discussions over criteria and procedures for safe relocation from existing spontaneous camps.

However, over the medium term a degree of care will be necessary to avoid the potential for two of the key planks of the recovery plan – decentralization and broad-based participation – to avoid coming into conflict with each other. As discussed in a recent post on Liberia, return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) can neither be forced nor prevented barring exceptional circumstances. As with all non-displaced Haitian citizens, IDPs enjoy the right to freedom of movement and choice of residence.

In this context, the arguments for decentralization may be good, but they must ultimately be compelling to the displaced persons in question themselves, not just civil society groups or international donors. The international community and the national authorities have done a good job putting together a sensible plan in a hurry. On Wednesday, the donors will vote with their pocketbooks, and after that Haiti’s disaster IDPs will vote (or abstain) with their feet.

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