Q&A: Haiti’s Rebuilding Challenges Four Months After Quake

BY Larisa Epatko  June 2, 2010 at 12:41 PM EST


Damaged and destroyed homes in Port-au-Prince. Photo by Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images

As Haiti continues to rebuild more than four months after a devastating earthquake killed 200,000 people and wiped out much of the capital city, the country still faces a number of immediate and longer-term challenges.

About 500,000 people are still living in temporary shelters in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, according to the Haitian government and Camp Management and Camp Coordination cluster (CCCM), which has plotted the camps on this map.

The U.S. military is wrapping up relief efforts in Haiti, and Tuesday marked the start of the hurricane season, with some expressing concerns that the population’s living conditions and country’s general preparedness leave them vulnerable.

To learn more, we spoke on Tuesday with Trinity Washington University’s Robert Maguire, who is also chairman of the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Haiti Working Group:

Are the 500,000 displaced Haitians’ short-term needs being met?

ROBERT MAGUIRE: It seems to me that there is a continuing problem in the security of shelter, particularly with the rains coming and the hurricane season coming. And it seems that there’s maybe even a bigger, more systemic problem on the ownership of land and clarity of title. It strikes me that from what I understand the government is having some difficulty in securing land that it needs because of disputes on ownership and ownership papers.

Also, there are people who are concerned about the security of their tenure on the ownership of property they have in the city. If they would, for example, leave the location, would someone else come and take it away. This seems to me to be an underlying problem that I don’t how it’s going to be resolved, but it’s going to take some bold action by the authorities to resolve this issue of who owns what land where.

It also seems to me that there’s an emerging problem of how to make a transition from humanitarian aid that is provided to people in need, but that could possibly have a dampening effect on market forces in Haiti. And if there are indeed, as I’ve heard, crops coming in and available for sale in Haiti, there’s going to be the challenge of making this transition from humanitarian aid that’s handed out to the point where people are again back in a marketing economy and supporting the local production.

As the U.S. military wraps up relief efforts in Haiti, what comes next?

ROBERT MAGUIRE: Even though the U.S. is withdrawing its forces [on Tuesday], there are plans in action so that there will be a 500-member National Guard mission in Haiti, I think it’s called Operation New Horizons. And that would be kind of a technical training mission. In the first instance, it will be based largely in the area of Gonaives (in the north) — a kind of civic affairs-type mission. There will still be a small presence of U.S. troops in Haiti.

But obviously the longer-run task of reconstructing and re-founding Haiti, which is what Haitians say, will be up to civil authorities and public authorities, and they’re going to have to gear up and take charge on that.

And what are some of the long-term challenges that they’re facing?

ROBERT MAGUIRE: They’re facing a number of long-term challenges. In no particular list of priority, some would be the following:

First, the challenge of doing meaningful decentralization in Haiti. The recovery plan that was presented by the government has a major emphasis on decentralization. But Haiti has become so centralized that there’s no easy path to follow on the decentralization. In fact, one of the discouraging things I think I’ve seen so far is that most all the attention in the aftermath of the earthquake has been placed again on Port-au-Prince. And there are of course some 700,000 people who left the city to go elsewhere in the country, and my understanding is that there has been little effort thus far to address the needs and the possibilities for these people.

Another huge challenge will be addressing the needs of Haiti’s youthful population and getting the youth engaged in Haiti’s future. Somewhere of about 70 percent of Haiti’s population is younger than 29 years old. Young people have very few opportunities before them. They tend to become easily swayed by people who want to create problems.

From what I’m gathering, the youth are not very well mobilized and involved in the redevelopment of Haiti. In that regard, there is an initiative that’s under discussion to create a kind of a civic service corps to rebuild Haiti in the same frame as how the civilian conservation corps in the U.S. addressed issues of rebuilding in the 1930s.

But there will be the need for the government to take some bold actions and bold decisions to implement initiatives like this. And I don’t know that the government will be up to that task at this point. The government needs very much to become stronger and to reinstitute itself. Some 25 percent of civil servants were killed in the earthquake, and the government was already weak, so it needs to buck itself up. It needs support in hiring more civil servants, it needs budgetary support.

It seems to me that the government should be approaching some of the university students who are out of school because their schools collapsed, and trying to bring these university students in as junior civil servants. Because here’s what I think is the biggest challenge in Haiti. The biggest challenge is for the Haitian people to see that their government is an active player in improving the conditions in their lives. The government today is largely absent from the lives of people because it has very little capacity. And there’s an emerging sense of frustration in Haiti that people are not seeing much happening and they’re not seeing the role that their government is playing.

So the biggest challenge — and I think the international actors must support the government in this — is to find ways of having the government of Haiti present in a positive way in the lives of the people.

After the quake, we heard a lot of people say we need to “rebuild Haiti better.” What does that mean and what are its chances of success?

ROBERT MAGUIRE: I think building Haiti better is more than just building things. It’s also addressing issues of inequality in the country, where 80 percent of the population lives on $2 a day and 20 percent of the population controls two-thirds of the gross domestic product. It also means greater inclusion of people in a country where there are few decision-makers both in the economy, the private sector, and in the government. Most Haitians are excluded from meaningful participation in their country.

And it means creating more opportunities for Haitians to rise up and meet the talent that they have. (Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton said something last April 2009, which I thought was instructive. She said in Haiti, talent is universal and opportunity is not. And a huge challenge is to find ways of providing real opportunities for Haitian people — not jobs that just pay them just minimum wage — but opportunities that will enable them to aspire to enact their talents and to have greater education and to lead a more meaningful life.