Every disaster offers an opportunity, many politicians hope. For Haiti, the tragic earthquake which struck in January is supposed to lead to a new social and economic start for the nation. But the reality is different.
Reconstruction efforts are underway in Haiti
"We're starting out at zero." These are words we heard virtually everywhere in the media in the wake of the devastating earthquake which struck Haiti in January 2010.
Numerous politicians see the disaster as a new beginning. Indeed, the Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti presented on March 31 at the UN headquarters in New York is buoyed by the idea of a new start. The countries at the donors' conference pledged $5.3 billion for the first 18 months of reconstruction.
Julia Leininger considers Haiti's reconstruction in her column.
However, in Haitian society, there is widespread and unconcealed skepticism concerning any such new start. For the big "zero hour," with its untold possibilities, has been promised time and again in the history of this Caribbean island state.
In the past 20 years, the country's political elite as well as the international community, led by the US and France, have pledged to do everything better "this time" - and not just on one occasion. Consider here the period of shaky democratic new beginnings between 1994 and 2004, or of the abortive attempts to provide the country support for efforts to boost its socio-economic development.
International players struggling for power
The quake disaster, which claimed at least 250,000 victims, made close to two million people homeless and destroyed some 320,000 buildings. It makes the present situation a truly exceptional one - yet it would still be wrong to speak of a "zero hour."
True, in many places the quake utterly destroyed the sparse infrastructure the country in fact had. But other structures have survived the quake, structures that, on second glance, prove to be highly relevant for the country's reconstruction.
Refugee camps have become home to almost two million people
Those who will be deciding on the country's future are, at least for the time being, still in power. Entrenched political constellations and a large number of all too well-known problems persist, including massive inequality, widespread poverty, and high unemployment. In connection with the project of Haitian reconstruction, the concert of international powers engaged in the country continues to maneuver for positions of supremacy in the western hemisphere.
The loudest brawl, for example, exists over the leadership of the international mission in Haiti. It does not only involve the US and Brazil. Venezuela, too, is intent on making its voice heard, and it has pledged more than the US in support of the reconstruction effort, namely $21 billion.
Spain, for its part, sees the disaster as an opportunity to strengthen the - at present small - role it plays in the international donor community. The only country still holding back is Haiti's former colonial power France. Back in 1825, it granted the island country its independence in exchange for a payment of 150 million francs - a sum that, adjusted for interest and inflation, today would amount to some $21 billion. The government of Haiti is, in other words, in danger of being marginalized in this wrangling for pre-eminence.
The gap between rich and poor
However, the Action Plan for Recovery does accord Haiti's government a prominent role. It is, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon put it, to be in the "driver's seat" in a Haitian-led reconstruction effort. Haiti's future development can of course prove successful only - and there is absolutely no doubt about this - if recovery and reconstruction are Haitian-led.
This means the population assumes responsibility and ownership for its own future. However, a Haitian population represented by a government apparatus that is seen more as part of the problem than of a possible solution is not a scenario that offers much in the way of promising prospects.
The quake reduced most of the capital Port-au-Prince to rubble
President Rene Preval enjoys considerable popularity among the international community. Yet he had, even before the earthquake struck, lost a large measure of the support he once enjoyed among the Haitian population. Many people are disappointed over the president's lack of vigor and commitment when it comes to forging ahead with necessary - and promised - reforms. This criticism focuses above all on the deep cleavage that can be seen dividing Haitian society, which is leading to the entrenchment of a two-class structure.
Nearly three quarters of the population is poor, forced to live on less than $2 per day. Many of these people are farmers who expected the new government to provide them with more land and to improve living conditions. Their demands have a long tradition in Haitian history. They are rooted in decades of systematic exclusion by the Haitian state, with, for instance, farmers being accorded fewer civil rights than others.
The farming population sees itself face to face with a small economic and political elite that runs the state affairs in the interest of its own well-being. The country's political forces are gridlocked along this cleavage between poor and rich. The Preval government is, for instance, accused of setting up obstacles to the participation by the opposition in elections, seeking in this way to choke off political competition.
Is Haiti ready for the driver's seat?
President Preval does not enjoy full public support
Disappointment with Preval has continued to mount since the earthquake, in part because the president waited two weeks before addressing the people of Haiti. In this way, he confirmed what the majority in any case thinks, namely that the government of Haiti is not working for the public welfare and has proven incapable of effectively tackling national problems.
Of course, if you are to take the driver's seat, you will need a vehicle - that is, a reliable infrastructure, committed, energetic politicians and administrators, and the backing of the population. The Haitian government, though, lacked all this even before the quake struck.
If the present disaster is now to prove to be an opportunity, the international community will firstly have no choice but to call on the Haitian government to initiate a process of national dialogue. It must be aimed at overcoming the deep cleavage running through Haitian society and developing an inclusive vision for a future Haitian society.
Secondly, measures need to be put in place to ensure that the aid made available to the country is used transparently. Cases of misuse of humanitarian aid of the kind observed in Central America in the wake of Hurricane Mitch must be avoided. The planned Haitian Interim Reconstruction Commission, set to be made up of representatives of the donor countries and the Haitian government, will not be sufficient to reach this objective. In view of the way in which power is presently concentrated in the Haitian government, what is needed is a far broader involvement of Haiti's society.
This column represents the author's personal opinion.
Julia Leininger is a researcher in the department "Governance, Statehood, Security" at the German Development Institute (DIE), one of the leading think tanks for development policy worldwide.