Jon Western on Help for Haiti

Tuesday, February 2, 2010 - 12:00

Questioning Authority asked Jon Western, Five College Associate Professor of International Relations, for his thoughts on Haiti’s long road to recovery.

QA: Looking ahead, will the Haitian government be able to handle the aftermath of the earthquakes?

JW: The government of Haiti will need extensive levels of external support in the coming months. The devastating earthquake destroyed much of the government’s infrastructure. Almost all of the government ministry buildings were destroyed or severely damaged; hundreds of government employees were likely killed while thousands more are homeless. The government’s capacity to provide basic levels of service is severely restricted. It has been able to provide some minimal levels of security and food distribution in some areas, but for the most part, the government simply cannot provide for the needs of the population.

The key requirement now will be for the principal government officials--President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive--to maintain a public presence to reassure the citizens of Haiti that the country will rebuild and that Haitian government is participating in the coordination of the international relief effort.

QA: What role, if any, should foreign governments and/or aid organizations play?

JW: The international community will have to play a very large role in Haiti for the immediate future. The humanitarian needs of the population are very acute at this time. The priority for the next several months will be to continue (and expedite) the delivery of basic humanitarian relief--food, medicine, tents, sanitation equipment, etc. The Haitian government simply does not have the capacity to provide this assistance.

As the country transitions toward the reconstruction and rebuilding phase, it will be important to assist the Haitian government. Much of the country’s infrastructure has been severely damaged or destroyed. The ports, rails, roads, andbridges as well as much of the communication infrastructure, the health-care delivery system, and the education system will have to be rebuilt. These are very capital-intensive undertakings and will require substantial levels of external assistance.

QA: Does this tragedy offer any opportunities for Haiti to emerge as a stronger country?

JW: There is a general hope within the Haitian government and in the international community that this disaster may provide Haiti with an opportunity to “rebuild better.” Given the extent of the physical devastation, some are suggesting that the city of Port-au-Prince can be redesigned and rebuilt as a modern city. For example, prior to the earthquake, the center of the city was overcrowded, congested, and insecure. Some municipal planners are suggesting that the earthquake offers the opportunity to rebuild the city to alleviate these problems.

But, redesigning a city of two million people presents enormous challenges. The short-term imperatives for housing, sanitation, and transportation networks are likely to come into tension with longer-term planning needed to fundamentally remake the city. It will not be easy.

QA: There's so much attention being paid to Haiti right now. Do you think the world will forget Haiti too soon? What can be done to keep the rebuilding and restoration of the country moving forward?

JW: The world was shocked by the tragedy, and the amount of money raised for rescue and relief operations reflected the degree of concern around the globe. As a global society, we have become much better at responding in the immediate aftermath of such crises. We are likely to see debt relief and a substantial pledge of donor support in the coming months.

But we know from multiple other cases that as we move from rescue and relief operations to reconstruction and then to political and economic development, the international attention and commitment almost certainly will fade. Reconstruction and development are long-term processes, and we’re likely to see donor fatigue, competing national priorities in donor countries, and the lingering global economic downturn limit the long-term commitments. In addition, much of the global press corps will shift its attention from Haiti and the story will increasingly drop from the front pages.

The key is to build joint international community-Haitian government partnerships now that establish basic priorities and sequencing for reconstruction and development. There is a tendency to throw extensive amounts of money into a country during the early stages of reconstruction and, when the money begins to dry up, the country is left with dozens of unfinished or undercapitalized projects--and these tend to generate resentment within the local populations and among international donors.

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