Last January 12th, Haiti was hit by a 7.0 earthquake that left its capital – Port-au-Prince – virtually destroyed. It left over 1 million Haitians homeless and resulted in more than 150,000 dead, making it not only the most tragic event in recent history in the Western Hemisphere, but also the event that could cost Haiti all the incredible progress it had made. In spite of the huge cost the earthquake incurred on Haiti, the surge in international support that followed to restore progress in Haiti could potentially put it on the path to sustained progress.
I have written before about the need to focus on more than just bringing in foreign investments and strengthening institutions in Haiti. While the two are very important, they cannot replace the need for restoration of natural resources and entrepreneurial citizens that can manage such resources while making a living. Here I outline 5 actions that should be part of a broad development plan for Haiti.
1) Rebuild Elsewhere
While the first instinct might be to rebuild right away in Port-au-Prince with better building methods and materials, the best thing to do might be to begin to focus the country’s main activities elsewhere where future earthquakes could cause little damage. This would mean a shift in government public works spending to a less vulnerable city, like Cap-Haitien. The goal of this would be to decrease the impact of a similar earthquake in the future if it were to happen. Of course, the location should also keep in mind vulnerabilities to hurricanes and sea-level rise.
2) Focus on Natural Resource Restoration
One of the most notable characteristics of Haiti is its lack of natural resources. A long history of resource degradation fueled by foreign policies and government corruption has virtually deforested the country, leaving it with little valuable topsoil for agriculture and water retention. While the situation is extremely critical, it is possible to embrace a long-term program of natural resource degradation that would reforest the country, restore valuable topsoil for agriculture, and make the country an attraction not only for tourism, but also for citizen-led natural resource based activities. Without natural resources, few industries will be able to prosper and Haitians themselves will have little opportunity to develop entrepreneurial activities.
3) Link Natural Resource Restoration to Jobs and Education
A large portion of Haitians live in the countryside where natural resource restoration is needed the most. Many of these Haitians survive on poor topsoils that produce very little food. Productive jobs are lacking and basic education is not always available. The process of natural resource restoration should be directly linked to jobs creation and educational programs. Those who currently live on exploiting what’s barely left should be given real jobs reforesting watersheds, strengthening creeks and rivers, and implementing sustainable agricultural systems overtime. At the same time, young people should receive hands-on education on natural resources restoration and management practices so as to leave the restoration effort to Haitians themselves when the time comes. This can have the effect of not just eliminating the need for citizens to clear hills, but also to lock in a strong incentive to continue conserving and restoring natural resources.
4) Promote More Local Entrepreneurship
Haitians have an impressive capacity to figure out how to make useful products from whatever they may have. This spirit could be a big source of income generation through small enterprises. Resources should be allocated to the promotion of local entrepreneurship to make use of natural resources as they are restored and to entice sustainable agricultural practices. Microfinance, local workshops, and NGO-led capacity-building could go a very long way at creating informal jobs with very little economic resources, and this has the effect of creating security and establishing a safe environment for bigger investments.
5) Establish More Partnerships
The UN Mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, has played a key role in improving stability in Haiti. With the solidarity shown by the international community, it is time to ensure that more partnerships are established between Haiti and foreign institutions. Haiti should seek to partner with government agencies from other countries that have been successful at doing something that could be replicated in Haiti. It should seek to partner in a wide range of sectors that could bring great capacity to Haiti and create new opportunities for sustainable growth. While it is extremely important to make sure that Haitians feel empowered to lead their own development, it is also crucial to take advantage of what potential partners could offer to Haiti at little or no cost.
Clearly, a lot more needs to be done in order to ensure sustained progress in Haiti. There needs to be more done on security, on government institutions, and emergency response. But the five points I mention should be crucial elements of an Action Plan if Haiti is to make most use of the international support it will receive over the coming years. For too long have some of these elements been neglected by international supporters. It is time to wake up to these realities and embrace them as if they are equally important to what has been the focus in the past.