“As food distribution improves, Haitians want U.S to ‘take over’,” said the headline in the February 1 Washington Post. This won’t happen, not while the U.S. deals with two wars, a recession and political gridlock. But before we can come up with a solution to Haiti’s current crisis, we must admit that the idea of “Haitian leadership” is polite fiction at best. The scale of Haiti’s disaster is on par with the Southeast Asia tsunami but with one huge difference: Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Thailand all had functioning state institutions to lead the reconstruction effort. Haiti does not, and never has.
For two centuries following its independence, Haiti has endured internal instability, external intervention and grotesque wealth inequality: over 30 coups (most abetted by foreign interests); 20 years of American occupation leaving some physical assets but no political infrastructure; 30 years of dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”); more coups in the 1990s; and very fragile political stability over the last decade. Haiti is a poor country because it is a robbed country-notably of its capacity to develop democratic state institutions.
Even if all physical infrastructure—schools, hospitals, roads — is rebuilt, the cycle of poverty, corruption, disaster, recovery and back again will continue. There is no need for “nation”-building, as Haitians are a nation, with strong sense of self and justified pride in their history as the first black republic. There is a need to build the institutional infrastructure of the state. This is not a challenge that the beleaguered country can meet by itself. What is required is temporary international guardianship.
Unlike UN trusteeships of old, an international trusteeship for Haiti would be more in the nature of a partnership. Trusteeship would be complementary to the economic reconstruction and development efforts and operate in cooperation with homegrown organizations and community groups.
But which country? Other than the U.S., France could be a possibility – despite the historical baggage of bloody colonialism. (The French themselves might view this as an opportunity to redeem this shameful chapter of their history). Still, the best candidate would probably be Canada, for language and acceptability considerations added to its long-standing commitment to development.
The challenge is massive. But although public institutions are very weak, Haiti is not an institutional desert, and there are important assets to build on: the rich Haitian culture; the resilience of the people; the reservoir of social capital shown by the astonishingly rare instances of violence (despite the breathless expectations by the media); and the new respect earned by the Haitian police for its actions in the earthquake aftermath. There are also two assets of a negative sort: few firearms in private hands, and no army – abolished in 1994.
The predictable objection is that an international trusteeship would constitute unacceptable intervention to diminish Haitian sovereignty. But if the mandate is to promote strong governance, is time-bound, and requires cooperation with local entities, a trusteeship would strengthen Haiti’s sovereignty. And right now a strong and sovereign government is exactly what the Haitian people need.