While Haiti is trying to move forward from its most recent round of violence, ongoing turmoil here is at once as predictable as it is tragic. Why is it that Haiti stays mired in the past and out of the headlines, with less hope for improvement than far more war-torn nations?
The Effects of Natural Disasters
Haiti remains the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It is an island nation where 80% of people survive on less than $2 USD per day and most have only limited access to clean water, adequate nutrition and basic healthcare. This abysmal existence is punctuated by cataclysmic natural disasters that only serve to intensify the lack of basic needs. In 2010, an earthquake registering 7.0 on the Richter scale killed some 200,000 people, injured 500,000 and displaced a million. The economic impact was devastating as well. The post-disaster needs assessment conducted by the Haitian government in concert with appropriate international experts estimates that the economic loss equaled Haiti’s GDP for 2009. While a loss of this magnitude is unparalleled in recorded history, frequent natural disasters occur of lesser intensity such as hurricane Matthew that made landfall in 2016 killing hundreds, displacing thousands and costing an additional 23% of GDP. This staggering loss of life and infrastructure cripples an already precarious nation and accelerates the downward trajectory of its economy. While the occurrence of these natural disasters is unavoidable, their effects can be mitigated by effective preparedness, education and infrastructure development.
The Effects of Governmental Instability
Haiti has been a country in turmoil since its inception in 1804. After defeating the French at Vertiere, the newly freed inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola named their nascent country Haiti after the indigenous Arawak word for mountainous. Since that time, Haiti has had 45 heads of state of whom 23 were removed violently, one twice. From 1986 to 1990, Haiti had 6 presidents and in the 1990’s, it had 9 heads of state. The Finance Ministry has been hit especially hard. The 2010 earthquake destroyed the Treasury headquarters and killed many of the staff leaving the country bereft of financial experts. Since then the Minister of Finance has been replaced almost yearly. This loss of governmental continuity has led to gaps in budgetary oversight and a lack of the natural orderly progression of government.
Capitulation, while sometimes necessary to stave off anarchy, is not sound economic policy. Time and again, we have seen violent protests achieve factious political goals in the streets of Port au Prince. The 2016 presidential election was vacated when demonstrators took to the streets. Roadblocks often cause interminable gridlock when a roadway project isn’t completed on time and rising food prices cause looting of neighborhood grocery stores. Frequently giving in to violent demands conditions the populace to use violent means rather than the processes of democracy to resolve problems.
The Effects of a Poorly Educated Populace
Thomas Jefferson wrote that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. According to a 2016 UNESCO report, Haiti has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, which generally complicates the dissemination and comprehension of information vital to the success of its democracy and specifically, in this case, often causes widespread riots.
Since the earthquake, some $13B USD has been committed to rebuild Haiti. The US has pledged the majority of these funds through USAID grants and IMF loans. The IMF initially pledged $102M USD in the aftermath of the earthquake and has followed up with millions more since then. These loans have had accountability measures built in to ensure both repayment and benefit to the recipients. In February of this year, the IMF and the Haitian government agreed to certain fiscal policy measures for an upcoming loan. Some of these measures targeted excessive subsidies for consumer goods such as fuel. While these measures may be needed to stabilize Haiti’s government, the timing and abruptness of the announcement of a 38% to 51% increase in gasoline, diesel and cooking oil prices certainly inflamed an already volatile populace. The announcement also came during the World Cup championship rounds when Haitians were already emotionally charged, rooting for their favorite teams. This massive price increase in fuel directly and dramatically affected the entire populace, and so the people demonstrated their frustration by toppling the government.
Perhaps a gradual increase and frequent dialogue with local leaders would have prevented the loss of life and destruction of property that occurred. This would have given people who depend on fuel for their livelihood time to prepare financially and emotionally for the upcoming price increase. If prices had been raised slowly and gradually, the goal might have been realized without the bloodshed and change of government.
With the fall of the then-present government, the momentum that was driving the economy to its best growth rate in years is gone. Now the energy that could be used to continue the current economic improvement will be wasted on choosing a new set of ministers and getting them up to speed to govern effectively.
Keeping the government intact even in the face of volatility so that a systematic approach to governance can be developed can ensure governmental stability. For Haiti to achieve true sovereignty and lasting peace, it must consistently adopt measures that gently hold the people and the government accountable to the standards necessary to realize their destiny in the world. While we can appropriately use the past to inform the future, the past doesn’t have to predict the future. With stable governance, education, and the application of democratic processes, Haiti can one day achieve the respect on the world stage – and the peace – for which it has longed.
Dr. David Vanderpool, a trauma surgeon specializing in tropical medicine for the developing world, is the president and CEO of LiveBeyond, a non-profit humanitarian organization dedicated to providing clean water, medical care and adequate nutrition to the poorest of the poor.
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