“We need money. We need technology. We need support. But what we most need is to remain the ones who decide our own future” – Lyonel Trouillot (from article)
It’s been nearly three weeks since the earthquake in Haiti. My mother has watched the news every day, looking for hope, good news, or for Louisiana’s General Russell Honoré to take over like he did in New Orleans after Katrina. Tonight, she asked me: “Well, Mark, what would you do?” Well, Mom, this is it.
Who the hell do you think you are?
Nobody. I’m a student of international development. My knowledge is patchy, my background is thin. And this is not, by any means, “how to rebuild Haiti.” But after hearing too many people throw up their hands at the question of what should be done–or cynically arguing that nothing can be done–I thought some positive suggestions might be in order.
If this post is to create any value, it will be in the discussions it provokes. I ask two things: First, As you blow holes in pieces of my plan or another reader’s, offer up an alternate solution. If we build up as we tear down, we might actually come up with something. Second, if you know of people doing any of these things in Haiti already, please share them.
The Aid Trap
To begin, let’s talk about what to do with all of the aid money flowing into (and promised to) Haiti right now. That’s a tremendous, and time-sensitive asset. It’s also a real and potential danger. If that aid money is used poorly, in five years Haiti will look much like it did before January 12. Here’s how we can use it well:
- Use those foreign currency reserves to dollarize, immediately. Haiti’s economy has always been, and will always be, principally tied to US markets. Working with the dollar eliminates the specter of inflation, a variable which will otherwise haunt any Haitian recovery effort.
- Set up small loan offices all over the country, like the US did in Europe after World War II, in order to get money into the hands of Haitian entrepreneurs (See here for a recent book about a Marshall Plan for Africa).
- Contract foreign design and architecture firms at going market rates to rebuild Haitian roads, hospitals, and bridges. But add a contractual obligation that they create and train Haitian-run businesses to do that work, and then leave after a set period of time. Kick-off suggestions of capable firms: Arup and CH2M Hill.
- Build the Haitian economy in two ways: first, provide tax incentives or subsidies to companies considering investing in Haiti. Second, create a similar subsidy or tax incentive–diminishing with time–to foreign companies who purchase key Haitian exports.
The Basics: Health and Education
That’s all pretty dry economic stuff, but now that we’ve mopped up most of that aid money, what to do with all of those volunteers? Their intentions are noble, but we all know intentions aren’t enough; oftentimes those volunteers are even a net drain on resources. What volunteers do have is a commodity often sorely lacking in poverty-stricken places: trust. Haitians do not trust their government, do not trust the US government, but do trust that those young foreign volunteers are there to “do good,” whatever that means. So, let’s transfer that trust back to other Haitians.
Both Brazil and Mexico have experimented successfully in the last ten years with conditional cash transfers: if a family shows their child has been in school and regularly seen by a doctor, that family gets a handful of cash to spend how they see fit. Could this work in Haiti, schools and clinics have been devastated?
With regard to schools, it’s the teacher, not the locale, that matters. Set up temporary tent schools: difficult, full-day schools based on the examples set in the US by Yes Prep and KIPP charter schools. Use remaining food aid to provide children who attend school with a free breakfast and lunch. Have each classroom run jointly by a paid Haitian teacher-in-training and one of the fresh-faced foreign do-gooders. The volunteer sparks local trust; the teacher has an extra body in the classroom until he/she learns the ropes.
Medical care? Well, we know there’s not enough medical care, period, and there’s unlikely to be for a very long time. But many basic diagnoses don’t require extensive medical training. Train and pay public health workers to be able to do basic check-ups, relieving pressure on the precious few in-country doctors. Again, partner one local-in-training with a foreign volunteer. Together, those two can sign off on the medical check ups required for families to get their conditional cash transfers.
So. The aid money/food is all used up, children are back in schools, money is in the hands of families and small business owners, investing is flowing in and exports are on their happy way out. That leaves, at the very least, the task of a) developing and training a security force and b) reforesting the resource-depleted Haitian soil. I know little to nothing about building police forces in developing countries, so I’m hoping for suggestions there. As to reforestation, I’m most interested in Brazil’s payments to local landowners to protect forests. Why couldn’t that work in Haiti? In terms of agriculture, there are smart people (like Amul in India) who have already figured out how to source local foodstuffs from tiny local producers, creating jobs and keeping cash in-country.
Deciding their own future
This plan, I hope, hews a path bound on one side by the exhortations of Lyonel Trouillot for Haitian-led growth, and on the other by the acknowledgement that it may be some time before Haiti stands alone. If we can provide some ideas as to how Haitians might shape their own future, let’s do it. What are your ideas?
(Note: this post edited slightly from its original version, thanks to my editors)