the quake
“The rains start in April, and the hurricane season really starts as early as June sometimes. So to have hundreds of thousands of people living in the open under a cloth hung over a clothesline is another tragedy waiting to happen.”
Robert Perito

A former Foreign Service officer, Perito is now a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 9, 2010.

What kind of shape was Haiti in [when the earthquake struck]?

Well, it was still Haiti. But Haiti really had turned a corner.

When you say, "It was still Haiti," what do you mean?

Haiti's the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It has chronic problems in the area of health, education, employment, literacy, grinding poverty, inadequate security, poor roads, poor transportation, limited infrastructure. We saw demonstrated in the earthquake, there are no building codes that are enforced, so buildings just evaporated when the earth shook. So it was still Haiti.

But things had changed, and the credit for that really goes to the United Nations. After the 2008 September storms -- there were four hurricanes and tropical storms that hit Haiti in succession, one, two, three, four. At the end of that, the U.N. decided that something different rather than the usual sort of Band-Aid approach was needed, so they organized a succession of high-level celebrity visits to Haiti to draw attention to Haiti and to rally international support and to rally the Haitian people.

And it really worked. It started with Paul Collier, the Oxford economist who went down and wrote a paper [PDF]. And then Bill Clinton was appointed [special envoy to Haiti], and he went down. The secretary-general [of the U.N., Ban Ki-moon,] went down. The entire Security Council went down. Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton went. A whole series of rock stars and movie personalities went. And the result of all of that was a donors' conference was held here in Washington in April 2009.

And I went to the conference. There on the stage, shoulder to shoulder, stood the head[s] of all the international financial institutions, the chairman of the Organization of American States, the prime minister of Haiti, Secretary Clinton, the foreign minister of Canada, the secretary-general of the United Nations, all of these people. And they all asked for international support for Haiti, and they got it. And Congress responded by passing trade incentives, and businessmen joined Bill Clinton and went to Haiti.

And by the time we got around to December, early January of this year, there was a real spirit and hope that things were at last going to improve. And the focus was on getting as much done as possible in the last year of President [René] Préval's administration. And so there was this sort of rush and feeling that this was a time when we all had to make progress.

The earthquake really came out of nowhere. This was the first major earthquake that Haiti had suffered in 150 years. The last one was in 1860, so this was not on anyone's watch list.

There had been seismologists who said this was an earthquake-prone region and that an earthquake could strike Haiti anywhere between now and 150 years.

... This is something that was maybe in the back of everybody's mind. What I want to convey is this was a period in which people saw that progress was being made, and people wanted to join in it and do more.

PBS, for example, the NewsHour, ran a feature news report on Haiti just a week or so before. They interviewed all kinds of people in Haiti. The image that sticks with me is the Haitian who's in charge of investment in the country. He had cell phones held up to both ears, and he was getting calls from potential investors. It was a hopeful period.

Just to get a little bit more sense of this history, why was it only in the last few years that things started to pull together?

In 2006 President Préval was elected, and his administration took a series of steps to calm the political waters in Haiti. He brought opposition political figures into his Cabinet, and the international community rallied behind that. And things began to get better in Haiti.

Then in April 2008 there were food riots in the country, and these were brought on by the international financial crisis and the spike in food prices. The government of Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis collapsed. He was voted out of office by the Parliament. There was a period of about four months where Haiti had no functioning government. And then these four major storms hit Haiti in September. And at that point, Haiti was in real trouble.

It was at that point that Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, decided that the time had come to do something different. The term that was used in the U.N. was there was a need for a "game changer," and the game changer was this approach of using celebrity and visits to refocus attention on Haiti, to rally international support, and to try to find a way to really put the country once and for all on the path to economic stability and progress.

Haiti's been a basket case for decades. So why does Ban Ki-moon decide after those storms in September of 2008 that he needed a game changer then? What's different?

There has been a United Nations peacekeeping force in Haiti off and on since 1995. The last iteration, MINUSTAH [United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti], got there in 2004 after President [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide left office, or was removed from office -- however you want to describe what happened to him. The United Nations Security Council has more or less indicated that that peacekeeping force can stay there as long as it takes. But it can't stay there forever, so something has to be done to put Haiti on a path that leads to sustainable security and sustainable economic development.

You're saying Ban Ki-moon saw this as a situation where he couldn't sustain the efforts, that we needed to get things on track or his resources will be drained.

Right. I think the thing that galvanized them was that after the storms in 2008, the U.N. published its usual appeal for assistance and asked for $100 million, and they got, I think, $40 million. And then they did a study along with the World Bank and the E.U., and they determined that what was really needed just to repair the damages was somewhere in between $800 million and $1.3 billion.

And they had $40 million.

And they had $40 million. So something more than just the usual emergency response appeal was needed. And it was pretty clear that if something was going to happen in Haiti, it really had to happen during the Préval administration. It was the calmest period that Haiti had had politically in a while, ... so this looked like an opportunity that had to be taken advantage of, rather than just the usual Band-Aid that would be blown away by next year's storms.

Why is Haiti so hard to fix? This is a country of only 9 million people, on the doorstep of a superpower. If you can't fix Haiti, what can you fix?

That's a conundrum. That's a problem that's a challenge to all of us. If you look at the writings on Haiti, you'll find a number of reasons that are usually put forward: One, Haiti's rather tortured history. Another is the well-meaning but really disastrous policies followed by the international community, including the United States, toward Haiti.

In the early 1990s, the United States levied sanctions against Haiti to try to get rid of a military regime that had staged a coup. All that did was destroy whatever was left of Haiti's industry and agricultural sector.

Haiti is a very bitterly divided society, where a very small percentage of people at the top own almost all the wealth of the country. It's divided linguistically. The elite speak French; most of the population speaks Creole.

And Haiti really does not have a functioning government in the sense that we understand that. There's no birth and death registration in Haiti. There's no national system of education. There's no national health system. All of the work that usually is done by governments around the world, in Haiti it's done by non-governmental organizations, most of them from abroad. The United States and most donor countries put almost all their foreign assistance into NGOs.

And what's the consequence of putting the money into NGOs?

The consequence is the government has withered, and Haitians who have talent and ability go to work for non-governmental organizations, for organizations, because they offer more benefits; they pay higher salaries; they're better places to work; they offer more opportunities. And so you have this situation where Haiti is sometimes called a republic of NGOs because there are about 6,000 NGOs that do the work that usually governments do in other countries. So that's a problem.

And that's going to get worse, because as the international community now floods in with more assistance, NGOs are going to expand, and that's going to take more resources away from the government unless the international community follows a conscientious policy to force money through the government and to work on creating government capacity, which is what I think is needed.

Was it the conscious policy of the United States to not support the government of Haiti but to support the NGOs?

I think it was a consequence of a number of things, not the least of which was corruption in the government and a lack of capacity in the government, and a need to get things done, and a need to meet emergency needs. And this goes back long before the earthquake.

If you look at Transparency International's rating of countries about three or four years ago, Haiti was judged the most corrupt country in the world. So if you're an aid administrator and you're looking for where to put your money and how to make sure the money isn't squandered, you'd probably give it to an international NGO or a U.N. or a United States company that's got a contract, rather than give it to a government which has dubious credentials.

These are just hard decisions that are made individually by donor countries as to how are we going to get this particular job done in the most effective way possible. And it usually ends up being, "Give it to somebody who we can trust."

And because we do that, we build no capacity in Port-au-Prince, in the center.

That's right. The problem is the government becomes very hollow. What you have in Haiti is what you have in some other countries as well, in that you have a government which has a thin veneer at the top of really world-class people who are highly educated, articulate. They could work anywhere in the world. And then you have a gap -- no middle management and no middle class. And then you have the people that sweep the floors.

Our great strength as a country is that we have this vast array of midlevel managers, people who have college educations, have master's degrees, sometimes doctorate degrees. And they're not running the country, but they're at midlevel, and they're making the thing work very efficiently and effectively. And that's not present in Haiti, so that's really a problem.

The other thing that happened with Haiti is that as a result of the economic calamities that struck Haiti, about a third of the population moved into the capital, and a lot of it moved into the slum in the center of the city, this area called Cité Soleil. And while sometimes Haiti is called the republic of NGOs, sometimes it's called the Republic of Cité Soleil or the Republic of Port-au-Prince, because all the international focus is on that city.

And one of the things that's happened now is that people are streaming out of the capital and going back to areas in the country that they came from originally. This is something which we need to support and take advantage of, to see if we can't decentralize the population again and get people to stay in their own areas and not come back into the capital city.

Is that realistic?

It is if the development assistance program is handled properly. What we need to do is to create incentives in the countryside and in smaller cities and in towns for people to stay there. And that involves basic education; it involves basic health care; and it also involves job opportunities. ...

It's hard to find an example in history where a country's capital has shrunk and people have gone back to where they're from.

That's true, but this is an unprecedented circumstance now. We've had this terrific catastrophe. It has caused people to go back. So they're now back in their original areas, and if incentives can be created for them to stay there, they just may do that. But you're right: The weight of historical example is not on our side in this way.

There were warnings that there would be an earthquake. Did you hear anybody talking about doing something as simple as instituting and enforcing a building code for the construction of new schools over the last several years?

Two things. One is that the last major earthquake to hit Haiti was 150 years ago. In all the years that I've worked on Haiti -- it's been about 20 years now -- I've never heard anybody mention the fear of earthquakes. Now, there was a lot of talk about building codes and that sort of thing, but it was in the context of hurricanes.

But many of these buildings would not have withstood a hurricane.

That's right.

And these schools, 90 percent of them were collapsed.

That's right. And in 2008, when these tropical storms and hurricanes hit Haiti, there were calamities. And there were two particularly tragic incidents of schools in Port-au-Prince that collapsed and killed over 100 children, I think, in each case. So there was a lot of talk about that. But, you know, Haiti was a place where everything needs to be done all at the same time.

Just to give you a sense of the mind-set, this year Haiti escaped the hurricane season. In the fall of 2009, there were no hurricanes that hit Haiti, so I think most people were breathing a sigh of relief and thinking, so Haiti was given a pass. So the talk about fixing the building codes I think was sort of set aside in favor of other things that seemed more immediate and pressing at the time, like holding the elections.

So Haiti is hit by four storms. People talk about enforcing building codes for schools and hospitals perhaps. Was anything significant done?

I don't think so. If you look at the results of the earthquake, clearly buildings in Haiti were built without regard to the kind of precautions that we would take in this country in a situation where you were living on a fault. ... Obviously not enough was done. This is a major problem. It goes back to what I said earlier about the problems of governance in Haiti. Haiti has a governance problem, and part of the governance problem is that the government doesn't enforce basic rules, regulations, codes of conduct. So not only is there no education, national education system or national health system, there's also no national system of enforcement of building codes.

Is it naive to expect that a country as desperately poor as Haiti would have a building code?

Well, maybe. But now I think everyone has had an object lesson about how important this is, and this is something that just can't be ignored.

What is the world going to take from this?

One thing that has happened which is positive is that the international community really has rallied to support of Haiti in this emergency.

How long will that last?

That's a good question. At the donors' conference that was held in Washington in April of 2009, the message that went out was that the international community needs to stay the course this time; that going in and conducting a quick fix and getting out as fast as we can will not work. And so people on the stage, all the leadership of all the international organizations said, "We're in this for the long term." And I think that was genuine. The question is, how long is long? And donor fatigue is a reality, and it sets in eventually in every circumstance. So it's not certain how long Haiti will be able to have the world's attention and to be able to garner the kind of resources that it has now.

The pledges are in the billions of dollars. But the problem in Haiti has always been absorption capacity. Out of that $350 million that was offered to Haiti at the donors' conference in 2009, only between $40 and $70 million actually got disbursed. Once again, we're back to talking about the capacity of Haitian government. There's not enough people who can fill out the forms to get the aid and to account for it, so this is a kind of vicious cycle. It repeats again and again.

United Nations has spent $5 billion in Haiti in the last several years. Why are things going to be different this time if we pledge another $5 billion down the road?

That's a good question. ... I don't think there is any assurance that this time is a charm. But a year ago, former President Bill Clinton came, and he made a speech in Washington, and he said, "This is the last best chance that Haiti's had in my lifetime." And I think, in a strange sort of way, it may be true now, that this is really a good chance for Haiti to rectify the problems of the past and put the country on a path to stability.

Haiti has a lot going for it. That's what Paul Collier said in his report. He said: "It's a country which is not located in a bad neighborhood. It's actually in a good neighborhood. It's surrounded by prosperous countries that are friendly and interested in assisting Haiti, including the United States. So it suffers from a surfeit of international goodwill. It's not a country that has experienced a civil war; it doesn't have extremist factions. It's had conflict, but there hasn't been destructive armed conflict in the country."

So given all that, what does it tell us about the effectiveness of international aid efforts?

It may tell us that we need to take another look at our assumptions. This may be the lesson of Haiti as well, is that we may be able to do everything, and it still might not succeed. ...

Can you give me your judgment on the emergency response effort that was made by the United Nations and by the United States?

I think the emergency response effort was quite remarkable given the circumstances. The first thing that happened was that the epicenter of the quake was right outside the capital city. It destroyed the two nerve centers of Haiti. It physically destroyed the government, and it physically destroyed the United Nations, and sadly, tragically, killed almost all the leadership in the U.N. mission. That leadership, which was a veteran group of international diplomats, very skilled, those people would have been the nerve center, the control center for the international relief effort, but they were lost in the first minutes. So there were days there where the people who normally would have been the people to stand up and take over and to coordinate the reaction weren't there. They were either dead or caring for themselves or trying to find their families and to locate each other, because communications went down at the same time. We have to take [that] into account.

And then, you know, the United States was clearly not looking at Haiti as a place where we needed to have an emergency response because things seemed to be going well, so we were looking the other way. The fact that the U.S. rallied in the way it did and the fact that the international community rallied in the way it did I think was quite remarkable. But, you know, these things can't happen in minutes or hours. They take days to deploy.

The government of Haiti was slow to get out and speak to its own people. What were your thoughts about that?

Haiti has a very unusual president. René Préval is an unusual leader for Haiti. Haiti has had a whole history of charismatic and predatory leaders, flamboyant dictators who have run the country as sort of their personal domain. And René Préval is unique. There have only been two Haitian presidents in the country's 200-year history that have served out their full term of office and left office voluntarily, and René Préval is one of them. He has a leadership style which is really unusual for politicians anywhere in the world. He's very retiring. He doesn't give public appearances; he doesn't make many speeches.

When he campaigned for the presidency, he was the most well-known and most popular candidate. He didn't campaign. He went back to [his] home village in the mountains and stayed there until the election was over, and then he came down to Port-au-Prince and was inaugurated.

He was interviewed by The New York Times recently, and he was asked this question: "Why aren't you out giving speeches, rallying the people, getting photographed?" And his response was: "I'm not a politician. My job is to manage this crisis, and that's what I'm doing." He said, "I don't need to get my picture taken."

It seemed as if Hillary Clinton went down there and had to drag him out on the street and have him talk to people.

She's not the first international leader that's done that. The fact is that if you look at Haiti's record prior to the earthquake, if we had not had the earthquake, we would be sitting here talking about the fact that under Préval's leadership, Haiti, for the first time, in 2009 had positive economic growth.

At a time of a worldwide recession.

Right, at a time of a worldwide recession, Haiti's security had improved to the point where the Department of State had amended its warning to travelers not to go to Haiti. Businesses were beginning to invest in Haiti.

There's a very famous shipping line that for years has been putting people ashore because Haiti has beautiful beaches, and they've always told the people on the cruises that they were stopping at the island of Hispaniola. They never used the word "Haiti" because they were afraid that people wouldn't get off the boat. And recently, as sort of a symbolic act, they've started actually advertising the fact that they're calling it "Haiti." A famous hotel chain [is] building new hotel there.

So, if we look back, we could say [that] if we would have had this conversation in December, we would be talking about how the Préval leadership style, strange as it is, seems to have worked.

Are you concerned that he may have lost the sort of political capital that he needs to govern effectively? When you talk to people in the camps, they don't blame the United States.

They blame their own government.

They blame Préval. They say, "Where is the government?"

Well, that may be true. And Préval's leadership style plays into this. But there are not many alternatives at this point. Haitians are -- they're patient. They're self-reliant people, and they're very patient. And it's difficult at this point to see that Haitians would really rise up and try to replace the government given current conditions.

But you're right. The Haitian government really needs to re-establish, or to establish for the first time, some kind of public presence. And I'm sure that American diplomats are there lobbying hard for this. But we're dealing with a leader who sees himself not as a politician but as a manager facing a crisis.

There's been a lot of criticism made in the press. One of the things you heard a lot about was the militarization of the effort, that we put too many guys with guns on the ground. That a fair criticism, in your view?

If you look at the capacities of the United States government today, you will find the civilian capacities of the United States government have been substantially degraded over the last 15 to 20 years. ... The capacity the United States has, for good or ill, for these purposes as well as others is the United States military. The United States military does an incredibly capable job. But we're having a debate within Washington right now about how do we rebalance our capacities within this government, and clearly this government needs greater civilian capacity. ...

What's wrong with having the military go in there and do the job?

First of all, we're in the middle of two wars, and we have demands on our military that are extreme at this point. So there are a lot of people in Washington who believe that this brigade of the 82nd Airborne and the battalions of U.S. Marines could be better used in Afghanistan or Iraq than they could be in Haiti. So that's the first thing.

And secondly, there is a problem with projecting an image of the United States as a militarized superpower. It really works much better, particularly when you're dealing with unarmed civilians in a natural disaster, an emergency relief operation, to send civilians, particularly civilians that are trained to deal with these kinds of problems. ...

Can the U.N. do the job?

The U.N. could do the job, although the U.N. is also strapped. There is something like 100,000 U.N. military personnel deployed today in 17 peacekeeping missions around the world. That's an enormous number of people. And most of those people rotate on an annual basis. So the U.N. itself is deployed and fully deployed. And the loss of the people in the U.N. mission at Haiti is a tremendous loss, because this was a group of very experienced veteran U.N. administrators, and those people cannot be easily replaced, because they take years and years and years to develop.

When the news of the earthquake came, when was it that the full force of this hit you?

I think it was within a half an hour to an hour after the quake. [The quake] hit at close of business in Washington, so many of us were on our way home, and we got the news when we turned on the car radio in the parking lot at the Metro.

Then, when it became clear that the U.N. headquarters building had collapsed and everyone was lost, and I thought of all the people I knew there, that really took me back. This disaster was far larger in terms of loss of life than anything the U.N. had ever suffered, far larger than the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. So this was a true tragedy, just in that sense.

What are your immediate worries going forward now?

I think my first worry really has to do with this issue of shelter. It's critical.


The rains are coming. The rains start in April, and the hurricane season really starts as early as June sometimes. So to have hundreds of thousands of people living in the open under a cloth hung over a clothesline is another tragedy waiting to happen. If these areas where Haitians are now living turn into a huge sea of mud, this is going to be an untenable humanitarian disaster.

posted march 30, 2010

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