April 07, 2011

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Eric Martin, an assistant professor of management LEWISBURG, Pa. — Eric Martin, an assistant professor of management who visited Haiti one year after the earthquake, talks about the rebuilding efforts there and how that compares with what is happening in Japan.

Q: How would you describe rebuilding efforts in Haiti?

A: Progress in Port-au-Prince has been limited. Houses in the countryside collapsed and it was devastating. But there is often some space for a tent next to the damaged home, there's space to gather the salvageable concrete blocks and space to rebuild your home. That's just not true in downtown Port-au-Prince. So much of the downtown area is either rubble, literally eight feet high, or tents or street. There is no other space.

The logistics of relocation in such an environment are complex. Of course it is all relative as well. A lot of good things have happened in Haiti, but the scale of the disaster is so huge that even great strides appear minor.

Q: Where did all the money raised for Haiti go?

A: There's a big difference between what was pledged, what was allocated and what's disbursed. The initial number of $11 billion that you often hear reflects what was pledged by countries over a long period of time and can include debt relief and other in-kind contributions. Donors have allocated about $5 billion over three years, and actually disbursed $1.25 billion; this is money spent. But of that, much is absorbed by the agencies administering the funds.

So there is a big gap between what is pledged and what a country receives. It is not underhanded, or mysterious, just complicated.

Q: Why is progress so slow?

A: Progress was good early on following the earthquake in January. Then along comes hurricane season and preparations for massive flooding. Then cholera breaks out and all available resources addressed that, which wasn't planned for. Then there was the election failure with violence and riots. All of those separate things hindered the long-term planning that you'd like to be kicking in right around November.

So the international community has been in a sort of holding pattern since then. It made sense to hold off on long-term development plans for the new administration. But those inaccurate results in November ultimately postponed the final vote to March. And reports now indicate significant inaccuracies in those March 20 runoff elections, so this holding pattern may continue for some time.

Q: Why is Haiti called the Republic of NGOs?

A: A massive number of NGOs (nongovernment organizations) responded to the earthquake; I've seen numbers between 3,000 and 10,000. When I wrote my dissertation on Bosnia there were 500 NGOs operating there. That was astonishing at the time. This dwarfs that using the conservative estimate.

Part of it has to do with the proximity to the United States. Also, a lot of religious groups had previous ties to Haiti and went back after the earthquake. Of course it's great that people are providing assistance. But it sets up a dynamic that can become hard to break. First, with so many players, they are often not well coordinated, which creates waste, inefficiency and overlap. They just don't talk to each other. That is frustrating. One town has three schools, the next has none — that kind of thing.

But an enormous amount of money gets channeled through international NGOs and that has some implications. Sure, it is easy to work with them. They produce results. They have the infrastructure, they have the websites, they have the contact person, and they speak English. So we channeled money right after the disaster through international NGOs for efficiency, which made sense — to have greater impact.

Over time, however, we should shift our support towards local groups. But there hasn't been this partnership with locals. Paul Farmer talks about "accompaniment" and local ownership. When do we end the emergency phase and turn power over to local government for them to take control for longer term strategic development? That clearly hasn't happened in Haiti. Of course, with wave after wave of acute problems hitting Haiti this past year, it is understandable, but it can be hard to break out of this pattern.

Q: Haiti just announced election results; what are your thoughts?

A: Initial results suggest Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly won by a 3-to-1 margin over Madame Manigat. Reports indicated there were widespread irregularities, so this could be a long, drawn-out battle. However, at this point, it appears a political outsider has won.

Mr. Martelly will need to work hard to assert Haitian leadership within the international community, even if it's primarily symbolic. He needs to provide Haitian solutions to the many problems the country faces to dispel the myth that the Haitian government cannot do things. That is really becoming the dominant narrative in this story, that the international community will run things and local government should stand aside. Martelly needs to break that impression.

It will help of course to have the IHRC - the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, headed by Prime Minister Bellerive and former President Bill Clinton — behind him. They certainly understand the need to empower local institutions and the new president. And Martelly's charismatic presence will help. He is young, good-looking and a professional musician who has been groomed into a politician. He knows how to work a crowd.

But this change moment could vanish if elections results are disputed and the investigation drags on and on. And I wouldn't be surprised to see Aristide become more vocal if that happens. Reports suggest many Aristide supporters boycotted these elections, so this story is not yet over.

Q: How would you compare this to the situation in Japan?

A: When you consider the earthquake and tsunami plus a nuclear disaster, Japan's acute disasters exceed Haiti's. But Japan has good housing regulations, codes and safety precautions. They do annual evacuations in high risk areas. They have an advanced warning system. Of course, we may see the nuclear disaster grow into a much bigger problem.

But there's no housing codes in Port-au-Prince, no planned evacuations, many of the hospitals were destroyed. Property rights and records are not clear, so temporary housing and relocation or rebuilding questions are incredibly complex. And then Haiti has this layer of chronic governance and leadership deficits with public administration. That's where many problems lie. It's those underlying governance issues that have prevented proper solutions in Haiti to so many problems before the quake. The earthquake has just made those chronic problems so much more obvious.

Q: That said, what needs to be done?

The question is how to simultaneously address those underlying chronic problems while solving the acute problems. For example, a massive amount of rubble needs to be removed from the city. And they need to recreate a sanitation department or a public works department and empower them and they need to employ people. And they need to develop government capacity to manage international money, develop projects, and be held accountable for results.

So maybe something like the CCC or WPA programs we had here in the States could solve a few of Haiti's problems at the same time. That could help establish a new dynamic between Haiti and the international community quickly without harming relationships or breaking free from aid. The IHRC could even become such a lead development agency, perhaps.

Haiti needs help and it needs the international community. However, it also needs to make its own decisions, guide its own future, and learn from the process, and indeed the failures, of doing so. I've seen institutional strengthening and capacity building projects all over Central and Eastern Europe. We know how to do it. We just need to carefully consider the Haitian context and adjust appropriately.

Doing that well takes time and results will be hard to see and impossible to quantify, and of course it will make funds appear to be used unwisely, perhaps, in the short term. But it is necessary for long-term sustainability and local ownership. Everyone understands that, it is just hard to do, hard to sell, and hard to accept.

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