The New Normal: Haiti After the Earthquake

It’s amazing how quickly things can return to normal. You wouldn’t know it from watching CNN, but big segments of life in Haiti, including in the capital, Port au Prince, which suffered the greatest damage, have returned to what would have been considered normal in the days and months before the quake. There is plenty of destruction still evident, and tens or even hundreds of thousands of people living in tents or under blue plastic tarpaulins throughout the city and surrounding areas. But shops and restaurants and gas stations are open, petty street commerce has resumed, and children in clean, if faded, uniforms walk to and from school.

Normal is a relative term, of course. Life in pre-quake Haiti was a precarious affair for most of the population, who lived then, as now, in dire poverty. Driving through Port au Prince, I asked Ralph, my driver, what sort of neighborhood we were passing through and he would respond, “Here most people eat twice a day. Back there it is closer to once a day, but up the hill in front of us people eat as much as they want.” Ralph, a law student at the national university and an office manager for DHL, lost his job and his studies after DHL laid off more than half of its staff and the university closed indefinitely until the earthquake damage could be repaired. Now he works as a driver for Europcar, the rental agency, earning $25 a day when there is work. Fortunately, the armies of aid workers, consultants, and potential investors crowding the city keep him fairly busy.

Devastation is visible almost everywhere. The hardest-hit areas were downtown, site of the Presidential Palace, the Cathedral, and the main commercial and banking district, and Petionville, the hillside suburb where most of the rich folks live and where the posh art galleries, French restaurants, cigar shops, and high end clothing boutiques are situated. There is a random quality to much of the destruction. One building may have been reduced to a pile of rubble, while the building next door still stands. It seems to me that, in general, structures made of pre-cast concrete slabs fared worse than those made of concrete blocks or stone, the latter two types of construction possibly providing greater flexibility. Among the most tragic sights have been multi-story office buildings and hotels made of precast slabs, which pancaked in the earthquake, each floor collapsing onto the one below it, a five-floor building now the height of a single story. But the Presidential Palace and the Cathedral, two of the older buildings in the city, made of stuccoed stone or bricks, were largely destroyed, though several of the round stained-glass windows of the cathedral, protected by wire grilles, remain intact.

Many things, of course, have a long way to go before they begin to approach normalcy. Almost every vacant plot of land in the city is covered with settlements for people who lost their homes in the quake, which consist of UN and other donated tents and shelters made of blue plastic tarpaulins, all crowded together as tightly as crayons in a box. There seems to be about one Porta Potty for every hundred residents. Surprisingly, in a two-week stay I have encountered fewer beggars than I do on an average day in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Land is in short supply in the city, so refugee settlements have been erected far outside town. Apparently many of these settlements have been largely abandoned, since there is no work, no income, and nothing to do in these remote areas, so their inhabitants have moved back to Port au Prince or to other cities, or have gone to stay with relatives in the countryside.

Many of the flights to and from Haiti, and within Haiti itself, are full of fresh-faced kids of high school or college age, most of them wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the logo of one or another Christian charity. On a flight from the northern city of Cap Haitien back to Port au Prince half of the seats were occupied by people working for a charitable organization of some kind (they were not wearing T-shirts) providing post-traumatic stress counseling to earthquake survivors. Maybe it looks good on their resumes or hastens their progress towards salvation, but I can’t help asking whether, in spite of the purest motives, they are giving Haitians anything they really need.

Few of the Haitians I have met have volunteered their stories of the earthquake, and I feel a certain reluctance to ask, just as one can never ask a Rwandan what he or she happened to be doing in 1994. But a few tales do emerge. One woman who had gone across the street from her hotel management school to a supermarket to buy soft drinks for her study group, crossing the street to return to school when the quake hit. She witnessed the total collapse of the supermarket and the school, and then spent the next six hours walking through the darkening city in tears, trying to get home to find out if her mother and son had survived (they had). Another Haitian woman, a consultant with whom I am working, buried in the rubble for some time, who has had four operations so far and needs another two. The estimated death toll is around 300,000, representing three percent of Haiti’s total population and more than 10 percent of that of greater Port au Prince.

As in many disasters, a brief period of solidarity, in which people pitched in to help their neighbors or complete strangers, quickly gave way to savage predation. The water in Port au Prince has never been safe to drink, and even the poor  have always drunk purified water sold from tanker trucks (bring your own five-gallon jerrycan) or on the street in half-pint plastic sachets. The day after the earthquake one little sachet, which had previously cost about 2-1/2 cents, was selling for $1.25.

Traffic, always a nightmare in Port au Prince, has grown worse. Some streets have been closed while others, piles of rubble blocking the way, are reduced to a single lane.  On my first night in town, hotel rooms in short supply, I had been booked into the Kaliko Beach Hotel, a former Club Med type of resort about 45 kilometers north of the city. Leaving the hotel at six o’clock the next morning, it took me 2-1/2 hours to get into town, arriving a half-hour late for my first meeting. Having decided to move closer into town, I sent Ralph in the afternoon to pick up my stuff at the Kaliko Beach, and it took him nearly four hours to get there.

I am here with two consultants, working on a contract my firm has been awarded to identify and evaluate a site for a proposed new industrial park in the northeastern part of Haiti. Creating new jobs, which an industrial park is likely to do, was a priority even before the quake. In the 1970s and 1980s Haiti had a robust manufacturing industry, producing clothing and sporting goods. At one point, all of the baseballs used in the major leagues were stitched in Haiti. By the mid-1980s, at least 75,000 people were employed in the textile and garment industries, and an equal number in other kinds of light manufacturing. Today, the garment industry employs around 23,000, while most other manufacturing has almost completely disappeared.

Garment workers are hardly the aristocracy of industry: they tend to be among the lowest-paid industrial workers, and the fiercely competitive nature of the rag trade means that factory owners try to squeeze the maximum production from their workers at the lowest possible cost. But garment factories these days, even in Haiti, are a far cry from the sweatshops of Lower Manhattan in the early 20th century or the cotton mills of Calcutta in the 19th.  The newer ones, especially, tend to be clean, well-ventilated, and well-lit, and working conditions are tolerable, with standards rigorously enforced by big international buyers such as WalMart, Levi Strauss, and Gap, which are not prepared to risk a consumer boycott if stories of mistreated workers and unsafe working conditions gain traction. Operating a sewing machine is often the first rung on the economic ladder for people who have been chronically un- or under-employed, and the income, skills, and work habits acquired in those first jobs can put people on a path to greater prosperity.

The downside is that every time a new country emerges, with even lower costs, the factories up stakes and move there. This is happening now to Haiti’s advantage, with big clothing companies, mainly from East Asia, seeking to move some of their production to Haiti from places like Honduras or the Dominican Republic, attracted by cheap labor, proximity to the U.S., and generous trade preferences granted by the U.S. to garments and certain other products made in Haiti. At some point, though, another country – Myanmar? Cuba? – may emerge as a competitor to Haiti and the jobs and income can start to evaporate. There are plenty of half-empty industrial estates around the world (including many of the towns in the Merrimac Valley in Massachusetts and new Hampshire, where our industrial revolution began), whose investors decamped to more favorable locations (South Carolina, Mexico, China, Vietnam) offering lower wages, less militant unions, and equal or better market access.

To avoid this fate, the industry in Haiti will need to progress from simple and highly mobile cut and sew manufacturing to operations such as knitting, dyeing, finishing, and even textile spinning and weaving, which add more value and require greater fixed capital investment. Haiti will also need to improve its overall business environment, which means not only new roads and ports and airports and power plants but also repairing a crippled political system that makes Haiti one of the most difficult places in the world to do business, according to the World Bank, and spawns a culture of bribery and corruption. It’s a tall order for a country in which people look back on the corrupt and brutal 30-year reign of Papa Doc Francois Duvalier and his imbecile son Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) as, if not a golden age, at least a time when things were measurably better than they are now.

Right now there is a sense of hope among many people, though I did not talk to any of the people living under blue plastic tarps, who may have a different view. Even before the earthquake the international community had started to pay some serious attention to Haiti. Paul Collier a well-known Oxford development economist and author of the book “The Bottom Billion” in December 2008 wrote a report for the UN Secretary General entitled “Haiti: From Natural Catastrophe to Economic Security,” which became an unofficial blueprint for the country’s economic development. Though some of his points were questionable, he provided a great service by recommending that government action and donor assistance focus on economic growth led by private enterprise rather than on humanitarian assistance. The only way to transform Haiti from a social, political, and economic basket case into a self-sustaining and self-governing country was to create jobs and income for its people. Collier also pointed out that Haiti, unlike many other conflict-affected states, has many of the fundamental conditions for investment in place, and some significant advantages, especially in industries like garments and production of mangoes for export.

The natural catastrophe Collier referred to was the series of hurricanes that in 2008 had devastated much of Haiti’s north coast. In April 2009 the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) convened a donors’ conference for Haiti in Washington, at which both Hillary and Bill Clinton delivered speeches – he as head of the Clinton Foundation – along with numerous other notables. The conference ended with a pledge of $324 million in additional assistance to Haiti, intended to “rekindle economic growth, rebuild infrastructure damaged by the 2008 storms, expand access to basic public services, and reduce the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters.” The stimulus provided by these commitments was expected to contribute to the creation of at least 150,000 new jobs within two years. The IDB, the IMF and the World Bank also pledged to provide at least $1 billion in debt relief.

Then came the earthquake, which added a huge burden of immediate humanitarian assistance and reconstruction needs to the longer-term development challenges. An Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission was established, co-chaired by the Haitian Prime Minister and Bill Clinton, to coordinate relief and reconstruction efforts and the disbursement of about $10 billion committed by donors, which include the IDB, the World Bank, the European Union and its member states, and, the biggest of all, Venezuela, which pledged $2.4 billion. About half of this amount is intended to be spent in 2010 and 2011. In addition, the IMF and the World Bank in early July announced cancellation of $1.2 billion of Haiti’s foreign debt.

As you would expect, the carping started before the ink was even dry on the signatures on the agreement establishing the Interim Commission. It is impossible to know exactly how much has so far been disbursed, but an Op-Ed article by Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive in the New York Times of July 12 stated that only 10% of the $5.3 billion pledged for 2010 and 2011 has so far been disbursed. There is the inevitable question of how a country of under 10 million people can absorb such a vast amount of money in such a short time (the $10 billion equates to 40% more than the country’s annual gross domestic product), not to mention the issue of oversight and accountability for such a huge sum in a country with a weak government and widespread corruption. According to some reports only 30% of the amount pledged at the April 2009 donors’ conference had been disbursed a year later, while the Washington Post reported on July 19 that “although the U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions on short-term emergency aid, the rest of the funds [some $900 million pledged for 2010] are in a supplemental budget bill that has been held up in Congress by an unrelated dispute over state aid.”

As valid as these criticisms may be, it would be naïve to think that domestic political concerns in the United States or any other country are going to be set aside even for such a worthy cause as Haiti. There is no cause so worthy that some legislator will not hijack it for his or her own political ends. Some of the funds will inevitably go missing due to theft, lax oversight, and incompetence, and it is certain that not all of the money pledged will actually be disbursed. In this, the Haiti relief and reconstruction effort will be no different from any other initiative of its kind in recent history.

Haiti is far from hopeless. It is not a failed state. Though history and nature have dealt them a bad hand, Haitians are resilient people who can and will rebuild their country. It could all go horribly wrong, of course, and the influx of aid money could dissolve the bonds that hold the society together and set the country up for even worse disasters to come. But my money is on Haiti succeeding. To be sure, it will remain a poor country for a long time to come, but I can see it achieving some measure of modest prosperity, in which people can feed, educate, shelter, clothe, and buy medicine for their children. It is less likely to be the clean-cut volunteers for Jesus who will make this happen than the investors with their factories and checkbooks. But above all else, it will depend on the Haitian people themselves.

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