United States Institute of Peace: How to End Poverty in Haiti?

  • Posted on: 15 December 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

The United States Institute of Peace is a nonpartisan, independent think tank (or at least as independent as possible given that it was established and funded by Congress.) Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide.  The Institute has a Haiti Working Group, which meets monthly and is open to anyone interested in Haiti.  The Group periodically publishes papers or organizes Haiti related events. Last week, the Working Group held a panel called The End of Poverty in Haiti.



The first speaker on the Panel was Jacques Edouard Alexis, the former Prime Minister of Haiti.  By most accounts, Alexis is a good man who cares about his country.  Though he was ousted in a no confidence vote (for reasons to complex to go into here), he remains deeply involved in Haitian development issues. 


His administration was notable for producing a strategy for economic growth and poverty reduction. The strategy identified development priorities for the government and provided a blueprint for international donor support.  We all know the Haitian government lacks resources, but leadership includes being able to articulate priorities and to work with a wide gambit of partners to meet them.  The strategy was just a first step toward that goal.


As he himself notes, a vision without action is dead.  Food riots, a government leadership crisis, and the devastation caused by a series of tropical storms and subsequent flooding prevented the implementation of the plan.  As a result, 2008 was a lost year for a country that has very little time to spare. 


The recurring theme throughout his comments was the need for good governance.  He noted the importance of decentralizing the political decision making process from Port au Prince to the provinces.  He also noted the need to mobilize society to protect the environment.  In his opinion, Haiti will never really be a sovereign country until it can develop economically.  Reversing environmental degradation is a prerequiste for doing so.


He also knows Haiti's stengths, one of which is rich cultural capital.  Haiti is indeed unique in that it is at the crossroads of Africa, Latin America, and North America. Its art, music, and dance, all of which are inexhaustible resources, reflect this.


He also urged Haitians to look to their historical heroes who accomplished the remarkable – leading the world’s only successful slave revolt and becoming the first free black republic.  Haiti will need to draw inspiration from past accomplishments to shape a better future. 


Alexis then highlighted the importance of economic and agricultural collaboration with the Dominican Republic.  The relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is often tense but collaboration is in the best interest of both countries.


Stephen A. Horblitt, the Director of External Relations for Creative Associates International stated that Haiti was a country with a kaledescope of projects but no systemic development.  He encouraged government leadership, but of a decentralized sort.  He emphasized the importance of inclusion, noting that the only legitimate form of governance would be that which considers the needs of the entire country, and not just  small portions of the population.  He asked that Haitians and friends of Haiti look to the the flag for inspiration which states that “Union Makes Strength.”  Inversely, a lack of inclusion breeds chaos.


Charles Call, a  Jennings Randoph Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace also addressed the issue of good governance.  He noted that there are plenty of individuals who make good Ministers, but relatively few skilled workers beneath them.  Now to be fair, few people will want to work for the government if they are not paid on time every time.  Irregular salaries are a recipe for corruption.  But his point is valid, many of the best and brightest have left.  It takes more than  a President, a Prime Minister, and a cadre of Ministers to run a government.  To him, strengthening governance in Haiti means nurturing a skilled and accountable civil service.  


Bob Maguire, long time Haiti expert, emphasized that the time for talk concerning a Haitian National Service Corps is over.  Even here in the United States, bleak economic times have caused us to consider implementing such a progam, such as we have not seen since the New Deal.  The needs are far greater in Haiti and there is a largely young population willing to work to meet them.  He stated that for any development plan to be effective, all Haitians must buy into it including those who live outside of Port au Prince.   He noted that decentralization will involve a cultural shift, away from the Gwo Neg (Big Man) system of politics that has prevailed for so long.


He noted, and his point is a fair one, that we seem to be having the same conversation concerning Haiti that we have been having for the last fifteen years.  Most agree that good governance is needed, that decentralization should be encouraged, that civil society should be bolstered, and that long term engagement of the international community is necessary.  


Some participants noted that Haitian governmental structures promote instability such as a lack of clarity between the roles of the President and Prime Minister and a Parliament that often acts as if it is the executive branch.  What came through clearly though was that a democracy means much more than just elections.  It may well mean the development of a much needed middle class.  To any extent, elections without dialogue and consensus building can actually result in more instability.  How many times have we seen this in Haiti and elsewhere? 


No transcript of the panel is available but you can listen to an audio recording of the event by clicking here.  Also, the USIP website has a number of Haiti related papers available concerning conflict and climate change, gang related conflict, governance, etc.   


My hope is that 2009 will not be lost.  I believe that instead of having the same conversation again and again, that we can begin to turn dialogue into action.  Listen to the audio and let us know what questions you would have liked to ask or comments you might have liked to make. 



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