Rebuilding Haiti: Country Ownership vs. Transparency and Accountability
April 7, 2010
Last week at the United Nations, more than 50 countries pledged just under $10 billion over three years for rebuilding—or as Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive asserted—reinventing and remaking Haiti. Some appreciably smaller amount will probably be delivered, but it will still be substantial, to say the least.
Two conflicting principles will govern the administration of those funds, and both are in danger of becoming mere platitudes: country ownership; and transparency and accountability. In a democratic country with good governance, the tension between the two principles is diminished. In a democracy, there are vertical and horizontal mechanisms—checks and balances—that, when functioning well, reduce inconsistencies. The government is the proxy for country ownership (although most donors also want to know what the public thinks). It is also the guarantor of transparency and accountability (although nongovernmental organizations play an important role in ensuring both, since most governments are prone to keeping details internal). But Haiti is not a democratic country. More important, the levels of corruption and state capture by a highly self-dealing (not to say venal) elite are legendary. So what does accountability and transparency mean in a country like Haiti? And what about country ownership?
Over the years, dozens of meetings have been called in the U.S. government around one or another Haitian tragedy. Many were presided over by some new envoy. Almost every new envoy began with a pep talk. “Haiti is at a crossroads. This is Haiti’s last chance. I believe we can make a difference.” Apparently Haiti lives in a maze of crossroads. But all of them seem to lead back to the very same place.
Without doubt, this last earthquake caused unprecedented destruction and anguish, even in a country as afflicted as Haiti. Previous Haitian tragedies were far less severe, even though they too caused substantial damage and pain. Why are the tragedies so frequent? Why was the devastation of this latest earthquake so widespread and so overwhelming? Why was the destruction accompanying Chile’s later but much stronger earthquake so much less damaging, and why is such a massive international bidding conference and relief effort unnecessary in Chile? Part of the reason is that Haiti is so poor. Part is that Haiti’s geology is different from Chile’s, and its earthquake had more destructive effect. Chile would have experienced even more damage had the geology been the same. But a large part is that building codes in Haiti either do not exist at all (at least for practical purposes) or that they provide opportunities for government officials and others to collect bribes to avoid them. That is a small part of the elite’s predation on Haiti’s poor.
So what does “country ownership” meaningfully come to in a country like Haiti? Surely it cannot mean using the government of Haiti as a proxy and expecting results. The announcement by various donor agencies—including the U.S. military—that they are, or have been, directed by the government of Haiti is either a joke or a sham. In the absence of both capacity and accountability, the U.S. military, for example, simply took over and did what was needed. Was there a Haitian official sitting in some makeshift office to whom the actual relief workers “reported”? Perhaps. Was it a serious excise? No. Why? Because of the lack of Haitian capacity, transparency, accountability, and good governance, which are also major reasons for Haiti’s poverty and Chile’s success.
Notwithstanding substantial “donor fatigue” brought on by a loss of public support for development and relief efforts in places where some substantial amount of the relief funds will be siphoned into private pockets, and where much of the responsibility for the relief needs grows out of previous grand corruption and greed, the outpouring of support for Haiti is heartening, no doubt because of the photos of ruin and personal hardship. But that support will wilt if these billions of dollars bring stories of large-scale corruption and poor governance as well.
Perhaps this time, as President René Préval and Prime Minister Bellerive have promised in response to the pledges of the donors, Haiti really is at a crossroads and will take the right path. Perhaps the elite will not squander this opportunity, born of necessity. Perhaps one of the fruits of the tragedy will be more accountability, more transparency, better governance, not just over the relief effort but over Haiti’s future. Perhaps Haiti will be reinvented and remade, and perhaps by its own citizens and their elected public servants. One can hope.
But, as the U.S. Army teaches its recruits, hope is not a strategy. “Been there, done that” is unfortunately the historically more accurate reading. As between country ownership and accountability, the donors need to be realistic about the former but insist on the latter.
Gerald F. Hyman is a senior adviser and president of the Hills Program on Governance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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