Things had been looking up for Haiti

By: Steven Stanek
The National
January 14, 2010

On Tuesday, before the quake struck, things actually were looking up for the impoverished island nation of Haiti.

New foreign aid was improving conditions in the country, street crime and gang violence were on the decline, and investors were beginning to trickle in, observers say. A new round of presidential elections were scheduled for next year – a feat for a country prone to political coups – and the former US president, Bill Clinton, was appointed Haiti’s UN special envoy in May, bringing with him the potential to attract new international investors and the promise of a better future.

“In Haitian terms, the year 2010 was something of a renaissance. It seemed to many observers that Haiti had turned a corner,” said Robert Perito, a Haiti specialist at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace (USIP). “This tragedy came out of nowhere – there was no warning. There’s a particular devastation in this, both physical and psychological.”

No one is suggesting that Haiti was a model nation before the magnitude 7.0-earthquake flattened buildings and potentially left tens of thousands dead, according to some estimates. The country is the poorest in the Western hemisphere – more than half of its nine million people live on less than US$1 (Dh3.7) a day – and it is rife with crime and disease.

Even before the most recent disaster, there was little infrastructure to speak of. A series of devastating hurricanes in 2008 left 800,000 homeless. Few presidents have left office peacefully – the previous president, Jean- Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown by a rebellion in 2004 – and the threat of political upheaval is never far from the surface.

Still, there were signs of improvement in Haitian society and many were uncharacteristically upbeat.

The current president, Rene Preval, who was elected in free elections, has presided over a period of modest economic growth, according to Mr Perito. Street crime, kidnappings and gang violence, were down, in part because of the presence of a nearly 9000 United Nations peacekeepers. Mr Clinton’s “star power” as envoy also has started to pay dividends, attracting investors to the tourism and mango sectors, according to a report by the USIP.

At an international donor conference in April, held in Washington, some 30 nations and organisations pledged $324 million to help the country rebuild after from the destructive 2008 hurricane season. The 2009 season, meanwhile, passed without any major storms.

“We had donors lined up. We had private businesses beginning to make investments. There was so much hope about Haiti’s future, hope that had not been present for years,” Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, said earlier this week. “And along comes Mother Nature and just flattens it.”

Among the buildings that were reduced to rubble or badly damaged, were those that housed and symbolised the two best functioning engines of Haitian society – the presidential palace and UN headquarters. The capacity of both bodies now has been greatly diminished, prompting concern that the country will descend into lawless chaos.

Foreign countries already have pledged new aid in the wake of the disaster and some, such as the United States, have dispatched rescue teams and military forces. Barack Obama, who has called the disaster “especially cruel and incomprehensible”, announced an immediate investment of $100m yesterday and said the US military had secured Haiti’s airport.

Still, some observers doubt the country will be able to regain the momentum it lost in the disaster.

“The prospect that Haiti will be able to witness a dramatic recovery is pretty bleak,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, who questioned whether donors would fulfil their financial promises to Haiti in the months ahead, as the world continues to grapple with an economic crisis.

“Donor fatigue is inevitably going to set in as it always has when it comes to Haiti,” he said. “Whatever is pledged right now in terms of aid will be rapidly truncated in terms of new world emergencies and the economic exigencies back at home.”