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Few countries have suf-
fered an earthquake so
devastating, or have
been less prepared for
such a calamity. The
quake that struck Haiti
on January 12, 2010, killed perhaps
200,000 people-no one is sure how
many. It left 1.5 million homeless and
caused economic damage equivalent
to 120 per cent of the country s GDP.
A cholera epidemic compounded the
These disasters called forth the
biggest-ever outpouring of humani-
tarian relief, worth some US$9.5 billion
in the first three years after the quake.
The well-wishers vowed, in the words
of former President Bill Clinton, who
helped coordinate their early efforts,
to "build back better."
Five years later, though, the country
is little better off than it was before
the disaster, and in some ways it is
The most visible devastation largely
has been cleared away. Only about
85,000 people are still stuck under
plastic in displacement camps. How-
ever, many of the rest have moved to
makeshift dwellings in slums without
sanitation. Port-au-Prince, the over-
crowded capital of an over-centralised
country, is more jammed than ever.
If another earthquake hit, the death
toll might be even higher.
Corruption, shoddy infrastructure
and political instability discourage pri-
vate investment, which Haiti desper-
ately needs to bring down unemploy-
ment and raise its pitiful wages. A
ferocious battle between President
Michel Martelly and the opposition
came to a head on Jan. 12, when par-
liament s mandate expired. This leaves
Martelly free to govern by decree,
which will do nothing to reassure
Haitians or investors.
How did so many humanitarians
bearing so much cash accomplish so
little? The failure to "build back bet-
ter" contains lessons for those who
would rush to help when disaster
strikes an impoverished country.
Haiti before the quake, though not
quite a failed state, was a fragile one.
A tortured history had stunted its
institutions. It took a slave revolt and
payment of crippling reparations to
free Haiti from France.
America marched in to enforce pay-
ment of debts in 1915, and did not
fully withdraw until 32 years later.
Many senior officials died in the quake
that flattened the capital in 2010, fur-
ther enfeebling the state.
The rescuers did little to build up
Haiti s capacity to govern itself. Less
than 10% of spending for relief and
recovery went through government
agencies. That is chiefly because many
officials were corrupt and obstructive.
The government demanded big fees
to allow in medicines, vehicles and
other relief supplies, for example. Local
NGOs received even less. Foreign aid
agencies set up a logistics compound
where they held meetings in English.
That helped them coordinate with one
another, but left Haitian organisations
on the outside.
This spurning of Haiti s institutions
came at a high cost. Eager to impress
donors at home, aid agencies built
clinics, but the government was left
without money to pay doctors and
Foreign contractors saw far more of
their money than did local businesses.
The mistrust of officialdom was
understandable, but experience in
other poor countries suggests that it
is possible to funnel money through
governments while strengthening their
ability to monitor how it is spent.
"Nontraditional" donors, such as
the Venezuelan regime, did not cir-
cumvent Haiti s government. Some of
the money from Venezuela s Petro
Caribe program, which lets participants
buy oil with credit on subsidized terms
and invest the profits from reselling
it, was usefully spent on infrastructure.
This encouraged Haiti to accumulate
debt, however, and if Venezuela-whose
economy is suffering from the slump
in oil prices-should withdraw its sub-
sidy, Haiti would face disaster. The
country needs grants, not more debt.
The progress from being a fragile
state to becoming a functional one is
inevitably slow. The World Bank reck-
ons that even the fastest reformers
require 15 years to 30 years to move
from Haiti s level of institutional devel-
opment to Ghana s.
Nonetheless, today s political crisis
suggests that Haiti may be moving in
the wrong direction. Outsiders can do
little to stabilise democracy in the
country, but the 2010 tragedy could
have been an opportunity to work
through its institutions rather than
around them, making them stronger.
Unfortunately Haiti s friends did not
make the most of it.
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