Haiti’s Economic Aftershocks

Homes under construction in Cabaret, outside Port-au-Prince. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
Homes under construction in Cabaret, outside Port-au-Prince. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

Five years is an eternity in the news cycle of natural disasters. It’s been that long since the 2010 Haiti earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people (no one really knows how many died) and triggered an influx of international aid (an exact accounting remains elusive). Haiti’s trauma has been eclipsed by Oklahoma tornadoes, Pacific typhoons and New York hurricanes. The world moves on.

Over the last five years, working as an architect here on reconstruction projects, I’ve witnessed some physical and social recovery. But the disheartening reality is that Haiti’s post-quake economy is identical to its pre-disaster model: Haitians remain dependent on foreign donations to maintain their subsistence existence. NGOs with tunnel vision and international aid agencies with top-down agendas hobble the weak government and cite Haiti’s culture of corruption as an excuse to deny distributing aid through local channels. Economic autonomy is not disaster relief’s primary objective. But Haiti will be a global stepchild until it makes something people want to buy.

Different countries have relative economic strengths. The United States fosters innovation, China excels at production, but Haiti barely participates in the global economy. Yet as a low-wage country close to the world’s largest consumer market, it offers advantages. Shipping goods from Haiti is a bargain because containers importing humanitarian aid often leave here empty. Its annual exports are about a third of neighboring Jamaica and less than half of its African cousins Mali and Senegal.

Yet Haiti faces big impediments to becoming a successful exporter of manufactured goods. A history of unstable governments and restrictive policies on foreign investment keep multinational corporations away. Convoluted bureaucracies and corruption make business transactions difficult. An unreliable workforce impedes efficiency.

Haiti has survived as an insular country since 1804, after a revolution by slaves brought independence from France. Since then, its revolving-door governments have inconsistently invited and spurned foreign investment. Corporate and political distrust still run strong, and this extends to humanitarian efforts. Less than one percent of earthquake-disaster relief and only 15 percent of reconstruction projects have been channeled through the Haitian government.

Over the last five years I’ve witnessed how these problems cripple the country. I designed and supervised construction of an orphanage and school in Grand Goave, 15 miles west of the quake’s epicenter. Both projects, the largest reconstruction efforts in Grand Goave, used American volunteers and paid Haitian crews to construct quake-resistant buildings adapted from Haiti’s traditional concrete construction. We were fortunate to have a Haitian-based organization coordinate land acquisition, road access and the few approvals required.

But obtaining raw materials was difficult. After the earthquake, prices spiked for items like steel reinforcing. Other materials, like cement, simply couldn’t be found. Specialties, from construction tools to shower curtains, had to be imported from the United States. Delivery times were erratic. A truckload of electrical panels and fixtures delivered to the Port of Miami at the end of May arrived in Haiti just before the American Labor Day weekend in early September, only to be slapped with an arbitrary customs fee.

Exporting goods from Haiti is not any easier. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports the time required to process goods for export is more than 24 days, the longest in the Western Hemisphere. Products from Thailand have much further to travel, but they can get to the United States much faster.

The biggest impediment I witnessed to Haiti becoming economically viable is the struggle to create consistent quality on a predictable schedule. Some days we were able to pour 30 cubic yards of concrete by hand bucket in six hours; other days we labored into the night and fell short of that result. My business experience provided little guidance for this dilemma, but a book by the historian Laurent Dubois offered insight. In “Haiti: The Aftershocks of History,” he describes the operation of so-called lakou, small-scale cooperatives that bundled land ownership and production to circumvent government attempts to create export-scale agriculture and reap the resulting tariffs.

The Haitian penchant to thwart “the man,” whether French slave owners or greedy presidents, U.S. Marines or paternalistic aid organizations, is more than an economic gambit; it’s a point of pride. Haitians do not work for money alone. They cherish their independence above all. Their pride in being the first black republic is so palpable one might think they achieved freedom 10 years ago, not 210 years ago.

I learned the only way to get things done was to make our objectives align. Sometimes that meant reminding the men that ours was a community effort; sometimes it meant pitching in to erase the line between labor and management. Nothing motivates Haitians more than “trumping the blan” (the Creole word for foreigner). Often this meant doing consciously silly things, such as teetering on a scaffold to demonstrate their superior balance.

Our school and orphanage are welcome additions to the community, but a town with orphanages and no factories is still a place of dependency. Yet no aid agency or private concern is introducing manufacturing to Grand Goave.

Haiti needs to create a unique economic model, a 21st-century lakou that bypasses a top-down system in favor of small enterprises multiplied many times over. This is already happening, albeit on a tiny scale. During my first year working in Haiti, I searched online for Haitian-related holiday gifts. There was nothing — absolutely nothing — for sale from Haiti. Now there are dozens of sites offering goods produced here. Although they consist mostly of nonprofit organizations selling crafts, they’ve contributed to the 3-to-4 percent growth in Haiti’s gross domestic product every year since 2012.

This trend can expand if the government improves the environment for entrepreneurs: Make it easier to establish small businesses; smooth transportation obstacles; devote less effort to seeking large corporations; nurture local resources.

There’s little to lose. NGO’s and aid organizations have improved conditions, but they are often poorly coordinated and lack the scope to propel self-sufficiency. The government is widely perceived as being hobbled by corruption. It needs to demonstrate a new honesty and transparency; capitalize on the NGO presence by coordinating their work, monitoring their progress and directing their vision. Well-coordinated aid could lead to a new, decentralized, economic model. When that occurs, all sorts of interesting things will rise out of Haiti. Including something I’ll want to buy.

Paul E. Fallon is the author of Architecture by Moonlight: Rebuilding Haiti, Redrafting a Life.

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