Why does Haiti remain, year after year, leader after leader, hope after dashed hope, program after program, perpetually a candidate for the top place, the most impoverished and wretched of the three or four conspicuously failed nations of the world? Why is there no reprieve despite the millions, billions in fact, in aid and the activities of countless benevolent agencies and the sympathy of all the world? Why? Why? Why?
Philippe Girard, an historian with a background of experience in the French Caribbean, has provided a richly detailed political and economic history of the nation in a 2010 book: Haiti: The Tumultuous History – From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation.. It is a fluent, astonishing account of the contagion of corruption including mass murders that have dogged successive regimes in Haiti’s 500 year history. Even Aristide, who started as an humble priest, three times arrived as President and found himself drawn into the murderous culture of his predecessors and competitors in ultimately losing attempts to stay in office.
The erosion of public purpose and public welfare in favor of personal interest and welfare was persistent if not universal. Over-population and a chaotic free market destroyed the landscape, the fuel supply, the water system, the fisheries and ate all the agricultural land under slums and erosion. Storms, the flood of September 19th 2004 following tropical storm Jeanne, washed soils off the treeless slopes and filled valleys with feet of sediments. Three hundred thousand were said to have been left without housing. Fifteen hundred were killed. It was but one storm.
The earthquake of January 12, 2010 was worse. It may have killed 250,000. It left the government and the public in a hopeless chaos of collapsed buildings and homeless citizens, broken families and thousands of severely injured survivors. Water supplies were non-existent or contaminated with sewage. Early in the efforts at recovery cholera, not surprisingly, entered the mix and added to the mortality. Haiti, the nation, had no resilience, no capacity to restore itself, no effective governmental leadership and no potential to implement a plan if a plan for recovery were available. The free market system sold food to those who could pay, wherever the food came from. Others starved.
Murderous, brutal governmental corruption in Haiti appears to be contagious and universal and extends to the destruction of the government itself and its potential for restoration of the public welfare as a purpose. One cannot avoid a comparison with current political trends in the US as historic barriers are crossed by political leaders in and outside government. In elections distortions and slander on one side invite similar responses from opponents. The process moves to a newly depraved low in performance and in expectations. Inside government, when civil rights are abrogated by an administration, as they have been, a new administration, although committed to correction, finds it difficult to impossible to stop the machinery established earlier and the corruption becomes the new standard, the new status quo. The quality of government erodes and the erosion becomes irreversible.
Education is ever a victim and has been in Haiti. A viable democracy requires an educated populace aware of the issues and capable of understanding the reasons for having a government and how a government must behave to assure the public welfare. Starving school systems of money, even closing schools, is an excellent way to destroy all public purpose and deflect resources to enrich those in office. So, too, in the US efforts to defund school systems and issue “vouchers” to be used in any “school” are clear steps in that direction…. and intended to be.
The solutions to the Haitian nadir by historical economists including Girard are stereotyped: move a simple factory to Haiti and hire the unemployed to build an economic success which will enable a political and economic recovery. South Korea is the example, a glowing one, so far successful. But South Korea had not reached the depths of the Haitian debacle with a virtually totally dysfunctional landscape vulnerable to any storm and a complete breakdown of social and political order. There are real environmental limits on economic and political ventures. One essential resource is a reliable system for supplying clean water. Another is food for all at prices and in circumstances that assure that those who need food are fed. Both require the functional integrity of the landscape, the physical, chemical, and biotic integrity of land and water. The requirement is even more demanding on an island where resources are obviously finite and the marine resources are a part of the support system of the entire island. In Haiti the marine resources have been destroyed by the siltation of coastal waters carried from the eroding landscape. It is a futile hope that civilization can be restored through a few jobs from a shot of industrial exploitation without a comprehensive plan for restoring a functional landscape and accommodating all the human population.
The answer to “why” is too complicated, too expensive, and too intrusive in that it will require a renovation in land use, a restoration of functional landscapes, drainage basins that are stable, land appropriate for small scale agriculture, the re-establishment of public schooling for all, and rebuilding the infrastructure, the roads and public buildings required for contemporary civilization. And it will require a renewable energy supply system. All of these innovations will be futile if there is no acknowledgement of the necessity for limiting the human population and a plan for doing so. The challenge is of the order of, but far greater than, the original Tennessee Valley Authority, to rebuild a landscape and its occupied places into a sustainable future.
Interest in success extends well beyond the geographic boundaries of the nation. The world shares not only the human misery of a failed state but must also respond to the inevitable and continuing hegira in search of alleviation in any degree.. Few nations are prepared to accept the human overflow which is turned back to intensified misery at home. Beyond that, the nation is a necrotic sore, a biophysical as well as a social and political and economic burden on the world as a whole. The world does not need a model of national failure. Quite the opposite. It needs an example of restoration, the Pearl of the Caribbean restored as a model for the New Post-Industrial World of self-sufficiency, renewable energy, and closed-cycle living. Where better to do that than on an island? And who can better do it than the wealthy industrial world as it moves into the post fossil fueled age?
It can be done, but the challenge is a large one, far larger than most economic historians or even practicing politicians are willing to contemplate. It is an appropriate new vision, a mission for science, politicians and economists, all focused on rebuilding civilization in the ultimate failed state. No one is in a better position to show us all how than Jim Kim in the World Bank as he sets forth in the next stage of his longtime mission in advancing human welfare. The world needs an example of that sort of success.
January 6, 2013