Helping Haiti Beyond the Disaster

While political junkies have been transfixed by the election results out of Massachusetts, the world remains transfixed on Haiti, battered by an earthquake that's estimated to have killed about 200,000 people out of a population of 10 million.

The international community has mobilized aggressively to respond, with vast sums for relief already raised through private charity ($10 million from the Red Cross alone) and with governments and international organizations sending hundreds of millions more. Initially, logistical bottlenecks made it difficult to actually distribute assistance, deepening the crisis, but the deployment of thousands of foreign troops (mostly American) is beginning to alleviate that problem, albeit too late for many Haitians. But as the world contemplates the situation beyond the immediate crisis, it should come to the realization that the situation facing Haiti is likely even worse than it appears at first glance.

The essence of the problem is not only that the direct damage done by the earthquake was horrible but that the country was in very bad shape to begin with. Haiti's pre-quake per-capita gross domestic product of $1,317 was one of the lowest in the world. That means that Haiti lacks the ability to undertake emergency response without massive outside assistance and that ordinary Haitians all across the country are living without an economic margin of error. A huge proportion of the population was existing just above subsistence level, and effects of the earthquake -- buildings gone, electricity grid non-functioning, trade cut off, laborers disabled, business partners dead -- is going to push many of the survivors below subsistence.

Aid of the sort provided by charities like the Red Cross can help with this situation. But fundamentally it and other charitable organizations can't resolve it. Pre-earthquake Haiti barely produced enough resources for its population to survive, and post-quake Haiti simply won't be able to for an extended period of time. What's more, pre-earthquake Haiti featured a serious lack of government capacity. My colleagues Reuben Brigety and Natalie Ondiak traveled there in September and reported that "the Haitian government needs substantial help to improve its capacity to perform essential services that would stimulate economic growth and improve access to basic services for the population."

Instead of being ready to receive such help, the physical structure of government -- including the presidential palace and key ministry buildings -- are destroyed and many key personnel are dead. It now has no way to collect revenue and limited ability to even communicate with officials in the countryside. The Cabinet is working out of a police building near the airport and it took a week to so much as organize a presidential radio address.

What's needed, then, is not so much text-message donations but calls to politicians in favor of policies that can help put Haiti on sustainable footing.

To that end, it's important to recognize that pre-quake Haiti was in many ways a dysfunctional and incredibly inegalitarian place. The international community shouldn't seek to simply re-create what existed before but to build something better. Given that the whole electricity system will need to be redone anyway, for example, why not take advantage of new technology to offer decentralized electrical generation that will help literally and figuratively empower non-elite Haitians and those who live in towns outside the capital's immediate vicinity? The total collapse of Haitian governmental capacity also makes this as good a time as any to try to tackle the notorious corruption of the country's police force by building something new from scratch.

Haitians could also benefit from policies aimed to make them less isolated from more prosperous parts of the globe. While America has repeatedly found itself intervening in Haiti over the years, we've been oddly reluctant to allow American citizens to spend money buying things from Haitians. We could, for example, eliminate tariffs on Haitian sugar and make permanent the provisions of the Hope II act that lift import quotas on garments manufactured in Haiti.

Neither of these steps would provide immediate relief, but they would offer knowledge that business in Haiti has a future and give Haitians and aid workers something to work toward.

There's also the question of immigration. Many Haitians have found prosperity by moving abroad and remittances from emigrants already constituted 16.2 percent of Haiti's GDP in 2008. The Obama administration has taken the important first step of granting undocumented Haitian immigrants Temporary Protected Status -- essentially making it legal for them to temporarily continue to live and work in the United States -- but more should be done to make it legal for those who feel they need to leave to do so. The goal shouldn't be to depopulate Haiti. But building new infrastructure will take time, and with much of the country wrecked, some people will naturally want to seek prosperity elsewhere. Developed countries should let them.

It's worth recalling that the United States does well when it uses its power to do good. The provision of humanitarian assistance in the wake of a major earthquake in Pakistan back in 2005 is one of the only things that has worked to improve Pakistanis' view of the United States. Indonesians, too, developed a friendly view of the United States after we helped them recover from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Haiti is going to be a troubled place for a while yet, and the American military has recently devoted a lot of effort to thinking about how to help provide security and development assistance to foreign countries. A relatively small country close to our borders, within our recognized sphere of influence, where outside help is actually wanted seems like a much more promising venue to apply these ideas than does, say, Yemen.

Most of all, we've got to stick to it. America is a big-hearted place but afflicted with a short attention span. A few weeks from now, Haiti won't be an interesting news story anymore. But few of the country's problems will have been solved. Smart policies can, however, make a difference over the long haul. And the most important thing to do right now is get some of them in place before everyone forgets to care.

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