Commentary

Can Anyone Save Haiti? Crisis Offers New Chance

Haiti is a tragic failure. For a long time one of the Americas’ poorest nations, the country suffered a devastating earthquake in 2010. Then, last month, the government of the neighboring Dominican Republic decided to return home hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants who are currently residing and making a decent living in the country. With the presidential election around the corner, Haitians will have an opportunity to choose new, more promising, leadership.

Ultimately, however, it will be the individual Haitians who will have to make a success of their lives.

In 2013, Haiti’s per capita income ranked 161st out of 181 countries surveyed. Adjusted for purchasing power parity, it was $1,648 per year — poorer than the failed African state of Zimbabwe. Life expectancy was 63 years and infant mortality 57 per 1,000 life births. World averages for life expectancy and infant mortality are 70 and 26 respectively.

Ultimately, Haiti’s salvation will not come from the discredited political class, but from the efforts of individual people to improve their lives and the lives of their families.

The failure of Haitian development is remarkable. Having declared independence in 1804, Haiti is one of the oldest independent and self-governing nations in the Americas. Yet, it has never built the institutions that would enable it to prosper. According to the World Bank, Haiti’s rule of law ranked 197th out of 211 countries surveyed, and corruption ranked 194th out of 208 countries surveyed.

The country also has benefited from decades of international goodwill. The United States has been pumping foreign aid into Haiti for decades. Then came the devastating earthquake of 2010 and some 13 billion additional dollars poured into the small Caribbean nation of 10 million people. While some of it undoubtedly helped those in need, earlier this year an NBC journalist visiting Haiti wondered, “The disconnect between the massive amount of private and public aid and the poverty, disease and homelessness that still plague the country raises a question that critics say is too difficult to answer: Where did all that money go?”

Haiti’s failure is all the more remarkable considering that the country shares the island of Hispaniola with a much more successful neighbor — the Dominican Republic. In 2013, the Dominican Republic’s income per capita was $11,796 or 7 times that of Haiti’s. The Dominican Republic’s life expectancy and infant mortality were 73 and 23 respectively. The country outperformed Haiti in terms of the rule of law and corruption. Importantly, the Dominican Republic is both more economically free, according to the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World report, and easier to do business in, according to the World Bank’s Doing Business report, than Haiti.

It is partly for that reason that, historically, Haitians sought work in the Dominican Republic. According to estimates, some 460,000 Haitian migrants recently lived in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic government’s recent decision to send most of those Haitian migrants back home will likely exacerbate the already strained humanitarian situation in Haiti.

But the return of the migrants also could provide a much-needed impetus for reform. Haiti has a semi-presidential system of government, with the president appointing the prime minister and setting the direction of government policies. The next presidential election will be in October, and 56 men and women are vying for the job.

One of the candidates is Michelet Nestor — the son of a street vendor and a butler, born in an impoverished Port-au-Prince township that lacked both potable water and latrines. Having worked for five years as a policeman, Nestor obtained a law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans. Today, he is the CEO of a private staffing company, president of an education foundation and runs a local charity.

As Nestor put it to me during a recent interview, “Haiti is often perceived by the international community as a failed state. Given the constant misappropriation of funds by the government, there is a lot of distrust between it and the people it claims to serve. To take Haiti forward, we need to instill a climate of fiscal accountability and transparency, with our people, the press and the Diaspora being able to monitor and better participate in a modern system of collaborative governance.”

Whoever wins the next election, the long-suffering people of Haiti have a right to demand and to expect an end to corruption and a government that understands the importance of economic freedom and welcoming business environment. Ultimately, Haiti’s salvation will not come from the discredited political class, but from the efforts of individual people to improve their lives and the lives of their families.

Marian L. Tupy is a senior policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Liberty and Prosperity and editor of humanprogress.org