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Amid the haste and confusion that has followed January’s catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, outside experts have suggested a wide range of solutions for getting the country back up and running. Battle lines are already forming over how reconstruction should be led, who should lead it, and what the priorities should be. Countless proposals have been floated, even as daily life in the disaster zone churns on.
What most fixes have in common is the assumption that Haiti can’t do the job itself, even given the funds. A recovery project of this magnitude requires a large number of talented and capable leaders. And Haiti, many fear, has too few. Look no further than the Haitian government’s early response to the crisis, in which the president, RenâˆšÂ© PrâˆšÂ©val, was largely invisible, and the deficit in local capacity becomes painfully clear.
Yet most proposed Haiti recovery plans risk entrenching the very hollowing out that made the earthquake so deadly. Foreign governments, international organizations, and NGOs have tried to rebuild Haiti before. To be sure, some of their plans were ill-conceived, but many have left with a shrug and the discouraged understanding that Haiti won’t change until the country’s institutions do. What is most remarkable about the amnesia this time is the failure from both the international community and Haiti to seize on what might be the country’s single most valuable asset: its large, competent, and highly motivated diaspora. Unlike many failed states, Haiti does, in fact, have much of the expertise and talent it needs to start changing the country’s trajectory for the better. Those people just happen to be living abroad.
How did Haiti’s domestic capacity become so terribly depleted? Dictatorship and misrule have driven away talent for generations, but the international community bears some share of the blame. In times of past crisis, foreigners — armed with their vastly superior financial and technical means — have swooped in to impose their own remedies. They often hold minimal consultation with locals, preferring to hash out details on the op-ed pages of papers (and websites!) in countries thousands of miles away.
For these visitors, Haiti’s chronic political disarray is often seen as an obstacle rather than something that needs rebuilding. Poor institutions, internationals complain, are a holdup in discussions; the treacherous local bureaucracy pre-empts rapid solutions. As a result of this, together with the perceived shortage of local expertise and professional talent, foreign donors have increasingly bypassed the Haitian government altogether, channeling their aid through a huge proliferation of NGOs, both effective and not.
This has had the insidious effect of drawing already scarce talent and funds away from the government. Twenty years ago, when I first covered Haiti, foreign NGOs vied to hire Haitian local talent. Nowadays, Haitians themselves operate thousands of NGOs, seeing them as the only way of gaining support from abroad. “The donors have steadily contributed to the emasculation of the Haitian state,” says Robert Fatton, a University of Virginia professor of government.
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