America's efforts to assist Haiti over the last 20 years were hobbled by bitter partisan division over Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country's elected, deposed and then reinstalled president. Unfortunately, as the American debate over policy toward Haiti subsided with Mr. Aristide's final ouster in 2004, so did American interest.
The latest disaster to befall Haiti creates the opportunity to combine bipartisan accord on Haiti in Washington with keen and perhaps sustained American public interest. The first priorities must be food, water, medicine and shelter. The second is to repair hospitals, schools, roads, electricity and telephone service and government buildings.
But these institutions should not be rebuilt on the old inefficient and corrupt foundations. This disaster is an opportunity to accelerate oft-delayed reforms in each of these sectors. The port of Port-au-Prince has, for instance, long had one of the highest costs per ton of shipping in the hemisphere, despite also having the lowest wages. Any aid that goes to rebuilding the port should be conditional on ending this grossly inefficient management and distorted cost structure.
Likewise, money for repairing the country's telecommunications system should be linked to breaking up or at least reorganizing the government-controlled telephone monopoly. The same goes with the Education Ministry, the electric company, the Health Ministry and the courts. Repair or replace the buildings, by all means, but also insist on fundamental reforms in their management.
James Dobbins is a former special envoy to Haiti under President Bill Clinton and director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in The New York Times on January 17, 2010. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.