Rebuild the right way

When international donors meet at the United Nations headquarters in New York on March 31 to continue discussions on rebuilding Haiti, it will present what former Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani calls “an open moment” – a brief period in time that will determine a country’s future direction. Reconstructing roads and buildings is vital, but if Haiti is to use this moment to break away from the poverty, despair and environmental degradation that has plagued it for the past two centuries, it will have to do a lot more. In order to achieve lasting changes, Haiti must rebuild its decrepit government institutions with strong anti-corruption policies and a clean bureaucracy.

Despite more than $5 billion in international aid to Haiti over the past 20 years, this country of 10 million is still the poorest and most corrupt in the Western Hemisphere. It will remain that way unless Haiti can take advantage of this moment to elevate its internal governance. Experience has shown that impoverished countries are especially vulnerable during periods of reconstruction. Dishonest government officials feast on the huge influx of money and establish powerful networks that perpetuate their dominance after normalcy returns. In some cases, up to 30 percent of development aid has been lost to bribery, kickbacks and embezzlement.

Both the Brookings Institution and development economist Paul Collier have called for a temporary development agency with wide powers to manage donated funds. That makes considerable sense, but the devil is in the details.

To earn the confidence of donor governments and the Haitian people, such a reconstruction agency must be managed by individuals of proven competence and integrity from both the international community and the Haitian government. The staff should be composed of outside experts working hand in hand with officials temporarily assigned from the various Haitian ministries. The aid agenda must be worked out in collaboration with donors and government ministries, and all assistance should be coordinated to eliminate duplication, waste and fraud. An important goal will be to ensure transparency for all reconstruction efforts and community participation in project selection and monitoring.

For the next few years, the business of government in Haiti will center on reconstruction. To make sure that reconstruction funds are not diverted illegally into the pockets of dishonest staff, all government employees should be required to submit a list of their assets every year, which will be reviewed promptly. Any false statements or increases in wealth that cannot be explained should result in severe penalties and forfeitures. The agency must have full enforcement powers, including authority to issue administrative fines and prosecute criminal violations before a special anti-corruption court, which must be established by the government as an early order of business. Government employees need to become accustomed to these and other trans- parent-government initiatives during the reconstruction period if they are to be embedded as the accepted method of operation in the Haitian government when the emergency is over.

Many of these kinds of provisions were incorporated into the charter for the Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi (BRR), the reconstruction agency created by the Indonesians after the 2004 tsunami. The BRR was especially innovative in its use of foreign experts and early focus on measures to thwart corruption, and it is generally regarded as having been successful in implementing a community-driven program with an atmosphere of transparency and accountability.

Haiti’s “open moment” is now, not because donors are generously opening their checkbooks, but because the amount of funds and international attention opens up an unprecedented opportunity to rehabilitate Haiti’s government institutions. For years the World Bank has taught that “corruption is the greatest obstacle to reducing poverty,” and Indonesia has shown how critical anti-corruption strategies are to the success of disaster recoveries. To ignore these lessons is to court failure in Haiti again. This time, we must get it right.

Jack D. Smith, an adjunct professor at George Washington University Law School; Mark Vlasic, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for Law, Science & Global Security and the former head of operations of the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative; Gregory Cooper, a Fulbright Scholar.