Diplomatic Pouch / November 9, 2009
By Larry Luxner
Haiti, by far the poorest country in the Americas, is likely remain so for years. And despite a dramatic drop in political unrest and violent crime since 2006, the struggling Caribbean nation is still vulnerable to natural disasters — making international assistance a priority for Haiti's 8.5 million people.
On Nov. 2, experts gathered at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies for a seminar to discuss Haiti's many problems.
The event, "Meeting the Challenge of the Millennium Development Goals in Haiti," was co-sponsored by CSIS and the University of Miami. It took place only two days after Haiti's Senate voted to oust Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis, and exactly a month after former President Bill Clinton led a delegation of 200 foreign business executives to an investor conference in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital.
Johana Mendelson Forman, a senior associate at CSIS, said progress is being made in the face of overwhelming challenges.
"Haiti has suffered some tremendous blows, including the tragedy of four hurricanes that hit at the same time, the economic crisis of late 2008 and, before that, food insecurity which has also affected Haiti's ability to move forward," said Forman.
"However, I do think there is an opportunity to move forward. Haiti lives in a very peaceful neighborhood, unlike other countries that have suffered this kind of conflict. It has great support from the United States, Canada, Brazil and other donor states, and this puts it in an advantageous position."
But that's not enough, said Raymond Joseph, Haiti's ambassador in Washington.
"Back in April, donor countries pledged $324 million for Haiti, but unfortunately, only 25 percent of that has been disbursed," said Joseph. "Also, some organizations like the Inter-American Development Bank have come through faster than others, who have been dragging their feet. Sure, we're living in a peaceful neighborhood and we have many friends. However, we have to see the funds. Pledges alone will not help Haiti."
In his latest report on Haiti to the United Nations Security Council, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said there was substantial reason to believe the country was moving away from its past of conflict towards a brighter future of peaceful development, citing increased political cooperation that led to senatorial elections, key legislation that included a significant increase of the minimum wage, and an inclusive dialogue on major issues.
On Oct. 30, the day Pierre-Louis was removed as Haiti's prime minister, the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti appealed to all sides to ensure stability and quickly install a new government team.
"Only such an approach will permit the consolidation of stability and the full availing of the real opportunities for progress that exist today, setting Haiti on the path of lasting development," said MINUSTAH, as the mission is known in French. "All sides must work together in a spirit of solidarity and partnership to confront the numerous challenges and deadlines that face the country and respond to the needs and aspirations of the Haitian people."
MINUSTAH has been in place since mid-2004, when then-President Jean-Beartrand Aristide went into exile amid violent unrest. At present, the UN peacekeeping mission includes 9,000 military and police personnel and nearly 2,000 civilian staffers.
Dr. Barth Green, , co-founder of Project Medishare and chairman of the University of Miami's Global Institute, said Haiti's security situation has dramatically improved.
"It's never been better," he insisted. "It's well-documented that the kidnappings and violence have decreased, so much so that Doctors Without Borders is pulling out of there because they're not needed. Infrastructure and road-building have been spectacular, and there have been major commitments to build hydroelectric plants. Those things, along with the stability of the Haitian government, offer us a window of opportunity."
Green noted that during Clinton's trip to Haiti, the former president met with Dennis O'Brien — CEO of Digicel, a major investor in the country's telecom infrastructure — to encourage NGOs operating in Haiti to work with the government's strategic plan rather than follow their own agendas. Clinton has now visited the country three times as the UN's special envoy to Haiti.
The security situation must be improving, said Joseph, because during his last trip, the 78-year-old ambassador took a taxi ride with his friends at 3 a.m. and saw many people walking around Port-au-Prince — a sign that things are getting better.
"When I arrived here as ambassador, we had a police force of 2,500 for a country of 8.5 million. New York City has 8.5 million people, and they have a police force of 45,000," he pointed out. "Today, we have 10,000 police officers, and before President [René] Prévals term is up in February 2011, we'll have 14,000."
Joseph added in December 2007, Haiti recorded 278 kidnappings. By December 2008, there were only eight kidnappings, and all the perpetrators were caught.
He pointed out that in December, the world's largest cruise ship — Oasis of the Seas — will bring 6,300 passengers to the northern Haitian port of Labadie. Likewise, Forman noted that the Haitian government is working quickly to create export zones, offer special incentives to business such as cheap electricity and promote the fact that Haiti has access to duty-free trade with the United States thanks to favorable legislation recently passed by Congress.
"There must investment in Haiti," stressed Forman. "But you have to take things in incremental steps. It's very hard to mesh some of these private-sector initiatives with the short-term need of alleviating the poverty people face."