Dick Taylor, a retired General Electric executive from Cincinnati, runs a complex of schools and a medical clinic in the hills north of Haiti’s capital of Port Au Prince for his Christian charity called FOCAS—the Foundation of Compassionate American Samaritans.
The charity, begun after Taylor’s first visit to Haiti in 1986, seeks to lower the appalling infant mortality rate in the area, and alleviate the region’s near-universal illiteracy. “My heart was touched by Haiti,” he said. “There was so much to do.”
Stretching across Haiti from Les Cayes in the southern claw to Cap Hatien on the northern shoulder are hundreds of schools, orphanages, medical clinics, and food banks endowed and operated by charities like FOCAS. Not robust enough to be called a safety net, these aid efforts are more like a fragile web of good intentions.
If one is an optimist, these tiny pinpoints of light are keeping the beleaguered island nation from falling into total anarchy. If one is a pessimist, such efforts amount to drops of water falling on a vast, searing desert of need.
When it comes to Haiti, the optimists are few.
“Haiti has experienced the full weight of international generosity, and, unfortunately, that hasn’t accomplished very much,” said Georges Fauriol, director for the western hemisphere at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The billions of dollars spent since 1994 are largely gone, along with the goodwill and the hope. In its place is a sense of fatigue as to whether Haiti can do anything right,” he said.
Many people have experienced that fatigue. After Operation Restore Democracy in 1994, a group of American writers and photographers who had gone to Haiti as a consequence of that mission decided to do something to help. Collections were taken up in offices and newsrooms, and a small private school was endowed.
It seemed a simple transaction. A room was rented, teachers were hired, and students were selected by a local administrator. Soon, heartwarming thank-you letters were arriving from beaming children who had enrolled in the school.
As with so much in Haiti’s blighted history, it was an illusion. Soon, government authorities were meddling, seeking payoffs. Money vanished, and some of the students proved to be either inventions or dropouts. By the second year, the venture had collapsed.
Colored Minibuses and Ramshackle Boats
It is easy to become enamored of Haiti. Under the sunny Caribbean skies, Port Au Prince seems to have a tattered, brave zest about it. The simplest cafes and hotels are adorned with graceful mahogany carvings. Artists sell striking canvases and tin and stone mosaics along the fetid port’s main highway. Brilliantly colored minibuses haul people through the streets, dodging the hogs rooting through piles of garbage.
The patina of charm and light makes it more difficult to acknowledge the depth of Haiti’s problems. But Haiti can offer terrible examples of devastation to the land and people.
A U.S. military official describes villages in northern Haiti where a high percentage of the over-30 population is blind (absent government controls or monitoring, farmers overused pesticides until many crops wouldn’t grow). Worse, local fish populations were also wiped out by the chemicals. All indigenous sources of vitamin A—something that could be supplied by pill for a few cents a day—vanished.
“It is sobering to realize that with all the problems Haiti has, the human resource to solve the problems starts out disabled or handicapped by ignorance,” said John Merrill, a Pentagon official who has been involved in the U.S. military’s efforts to bring some relief to Haiti.
Since the intervention to restore the government of Jean Bertrand Aristide in the fall of 1994, the U.S. government has spent an estimated $2.3 billion in Haiti. Other nations and private non-governmental organizations have lavished additional hundreds of millions of dollars on the country’s problems—all this in a relatively small island nation with about seven million people.
The goal of the spending was not just to keep the population from starving to death—or heading for Florida in ramshackle boats.
In 1994, journalists in Port Au Prince were told by U.S. officials that among the goals of Operation Restore Democracy were to restore the government along democratic lines, move toward privatizing the phones and utilities companies, have legitimate elections, begin to erase endemic government corruption, vitalize the police and courts so public safety would return, and inject the economy with contracts from international businesses.
Precisely none of that has happened, experts said.
“There is no evidence of an abatement of corruption, if anything it may have intensified [since the U.S. led intervention],” said Steve Horblitt, a consultant with family ties to Haiti who once served on a Democratic congressional staff with Haitian oversight.
“Haiti has become a buccaneer economy and a platform for drug smugglers,” he said. “Every time I go there I think it can’t get worse, but it gets worse. It is scary.”
A small, random list of the island’s problems would include:
- It is an ecological disaster, with its forests gone, its farmland chemically depleted and its water tainted in many places.
A ballooning school age population needs thousands of new teachers annually (but fewer than 300 teachers are trained nationally each year).
- The infrastructure is abysmal, with few good roads completed since U.S. Marines built some in the 1930s, unreliable power and telephones, and, at what could be a resource, the highest port taxes in the Caribbean at Port Au Prince.
- A court and police system that renders justice impossible because of corruption and judges who are untrained or even illiterate.
Perhaps worst of all for Haiti’s future, the dream that restoring the elected government of Aristide to power would create a fertile ground in which democracy would grow has proven a vain hope in Haiti. Instead, a corrupt government acts as an impediment to international aid efforts, according to experts.
The USAID has developed a poverty index which measures relative misery. In a typical African country that is considered desperately poor, typically 30 percent of the population is considered impoverished under the index. In Haiti, the number is 80 percent. “It is a level of poverty not only unique in Haiti, it is unique in the world,” Merrill said.
Crushing a Fragile Economy
Many are dubious that the short term offers an opportunity to reverse the trend. “You can’t develop a country through aid,” Horblitt said. “You have to have internal and external investment. For that, you have to have a certain stability. And the United States has just never had anyone in charge in Haiti who could be a partner in development. We didn’t under the Duvaliers and we don’t now.”
No one suggests returning to the military junta that ruled Haiti with terror before the military operation to return Aristide. But several experts note that the pressure put on Haiti in an effort to oust that government without a lot of bloodshed for international troops had the unintended consequence of crushing an already fragile economy.
In the early 1990s, the United Nations put an economic embargo on Haiti, hoping to force a return of Aristide.
“The UN embargo was a disaster,” said Merrill. Haiti had some fairly viable small industries—the country made most U.S. baseballs at one time, as well as inexpensive clothing and other consumer goods—but those industries were either killed or severely wounded by the embargo. People who needed the goods Haitians produced found it safer to pack up and move factories to places like Mexico than risk the political and social instability there. “The embargo hit an economy that didn’t have rebound potential,” Merrill said.
To revitalize the economy would require an energetic, stable government people invested their trust and resources in, experts said. But there are no signs that is on the horizon in Haiti.
Elections since the Aristide government returned in 1994 have been expensive (to American taxpayers, who underwrite them) shams that have attracted but a tiny percentage of the population. The last national election, in 1997, drew 7 percent of eligible voters. Since then, scheduled elections have been endlessly postponed, most recently in early March. Most Haitians see current President Rene Preval as keeping a seat warm for Aristide. The prevailing sentiment is that elections are being stalled until all can be put in place for Aristide to take over again.
In short, the prospect of real democracy in which many participate is a distant dream.
“We restored Aristide and guaranteed free elections and nobody voted,” says Merrill. One reason people don’t vote is that the number of political killings—as opposed to the simple terror killings which occurred before the U.S. intervention—are higher now than before the U.S. troops went to Haiti, experts note.
Robert Pastor, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, once ran the Carter Center’s efforts in Haiti. He speaks with lingering frustration about the efforts to get the Aristide government to make the minimal concessions asked for by a team of Americans in 1995 to ensure a half billion dollars in aid pledged by 30 countries.
What would have been required of Haiti was a promise to a team of U.S. emissaries—the same three who brokered an agreement for the military to leave in 1994, former President Carter, Gen. Colin Powell, and former Sen. Sam Nunn—to make some democratizing moves in the economy such as privatizing the utilities and telephones.
“All we needed from them was a small sign,” he said.
Instead, anti-Carter and anti-American graffiti greeted those who arrived—an obvious staged message from the government. The reforms sought by the international investors are still stalled.
About the most effective use of American resources in Haiti has been the work done by the U.S. military, several frequent visitors there said.
Initially as an offshoot of Operation Restore Democracy, and now as part of a program called New Horizons, the Defense Department sends engineering, medical, and other units to Haiti to do good works while getting training in a subtropical environment.
So far, the military has built and restored 49 schools, drilled and repaired over 200 wells, built a bridge, repaired or built several miles of road, and done other infrastructure work. And military doctors have treated nearly 140,000 Haitians.
Tons of food have also been donated by the military to NGOs which feed Haitians. Those non-governmental organizations in Haiti number over 400.
Among all the groups helping Haiti now, those familiar with the situation on the ground believe that international donations are responsible for feeding perhaps one-fifth of the population, and provide fresh water to millions.
“It is enough to keep things together, but no more,” said Merrill; which is why any talk of a real transition to a robust economy, self-dependence, and an effective government is premature.
“We may want to talk about Jeffersonian Democracy in Haiti, they are interested in finding something to eat,” Merrill said.
There are realistic models on which Haiti could slowly change, says CSIS’s Fauriol.
The most likely to work—but least likely to happen—would be for the Haitian government to “realize its limitations” and let international economic and government groups privatize communications and utilities, distribute goods, and supervise contracting on public works jobs.
“The government could set broad policy guidelines, then let the other players do what needed to be done,” he said. That would require a Haitian government “confident enough to look at it as capitalizing on international hospitality, not giving away its sovereignty.”
Another idea for helping Haiti, which is already being done to a small degree, is to bypass the central government altogether and to reach out to groups of businessmen and city officials in places like Cap Hatien and Les Cayes.
In those places, some groups of Haitians are seeking to “fill in the vacuum of a government that is corrupt and ineffective,” says Fauriol.
While those strategies offer some hope, Fauriol said, “In the long run, it is difficult to talk about national development in a country without national institutions.”
Horblitt agrees. “It is impossible to begin to salvage a country without a government that has a concern for the needs of its people,” he said. “That is the same all over the world.”
Still, some optimists remain. FOCAS’s Taylor agrees that Haiti has been brutalized by a “series of corrupt, self-serving governments. If you look closely at the whole picture,” he says, “it does look hopeless. . .. But we are a religious group. We believe that if you look even more closely, within the people of Haiti there is reason to hope.”
Michael Hedges is assistant editor of Philanthropy.