A To-Do List for Shoring Up Haiti


Aug 23, 2010

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on August 23, 2010.

Money has been pledged to help the impoverished nation recover from a devastating earthquake. Now, a sound plan setting priorities is in order.

The earthquake that leveled Haiti exposed fundamental weaknesses in its state institutions. Worldwide pledges of $10 billion create an unprecedented opportunity to fix them.

Haiti's own plans for recovery, presented to its international donors in March, contained a broad vision but no road map to prioritize and fix urgent needs.

It is not enough to raise stronger buildings. What Haiti truly needs is a more resilient and effective government, starting with these key areas:

Establishing an attractive business climate.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, ranked 151 out of 183 countries in the ease of doing business, according to our analysis for the Rand Corp. Our research also concluded that it takes 195 days and 13 separate procedures to register a business. It's equally difficult to get construction permits, credit or engage in foreign trade. As a result, industry accounts for only 16% of the nation's economy despite Haiti's low-cost labor and the favorable terms for importing goods from Haiti to the United States. As for the seaport, it's 35% more expensive to bring a container of goods into Port-au-Prince than into any of the developed countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and takes 22 days longer.

An efficient, one-stop shop must be established for businesses in Haiti. Then, as in a field of dreams, they may come.

Reforming the civil service.

Haiti has weak financial control of its ministries; each does its own procurement and suffers as much as 30% absenteeism among employees. Many are phantom employees who collect government paychecks while working other jobs. Poor record-keeping and noncompetitive bidding practices also invite corruption. Auditing is nearly nonexistent. Most government decisions rest in the hands of a few.

Change must start with a census of all government employees, to determine their locations and roles. For current employees and future hires, job descriptions should be established with predetermined qualifications as well as metrics for hiring and firing, and performance incentives.

Overhauling the dysfunctional judicial and corrections systems.

Haiti lacks well-trained lawyers, judges and state-subsidized legal representation for the indigent. An estimated 75% of those in Haiti's overflowing prisons languish for long periods without ever going before a judge. The police and justice systems barely link at all.

In the short term, officials should establish a special pretrial detainee review for prisoners. This step could potentially free thousands of inmates who shouldn't be in jail. In the wake of more than 200,000 earthquake deaths, Haiti should also accelerate the resolution of property disputes outside the court system using special panels. In the longer run, officials should develop a computerized system that creates one case log for each individual from arrest through exoneration or incarceration.

Enhancing education through regulation and enforcement.

The quake destroyed 5,000 schools. Even before that, children attended classes sporadically under a system of largely unregulated schools and undertrained teachers.

Haiti now needs to tackle education reform and reward schools that embrace a rigorous curriculum, rather than dividing limited resources uncritically among many schools, most of them run by private, charitable or religious providers.

For example, the state could subsidize private schoolteacher wages (in accredited schools that cap charges to families) on a par with public school salaries and link pay to academic proficiency. Teacher retraining will be necessary on a grand scale. School-based food programs have increased attendance in the past; this should be standard fare.

Shifting all public healthcare to a performance-based contracting system.

The earthquake destroyed 73 of Haiti's 373 hospitals, clinics and medical training institutes; 200 staff members of the Ministry of Public Health died or were injured when their Port-au-Prince facility collapsed. Haitian-based healthcare is crippled amid a continuing imperative to monitor and prevent disease in tent camps, to treat mental illnesses stemming from the quake and to provide prosthetics and rehab therapy.

Officials should shift operation of all health centers to nongovernmental organizations NGOs and other private institutions, leaving Haiti's government to concentrate on setting policies and enforcing regulations for the system as a whole.

Haiti can do none of this on its own. The Obama administration should strongly consider naming a point person to oversee all aspects of Haiti's reconstruction. At the same time, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, co-chaired by former President Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, needs to become the prevailing decision-making body, not just a talk-shop for donors and the government.

The commission is off to a slow start. To make it work, major donors, most notably the United States, should submit all projects to it for coordination. If the U.S. does not embrace this discipline, no one else will.

James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti under the Clinton administration, directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Santa Monica-based nonprofit Rand Corp., where Laurel Miller is a senior policy analyst. The study "Building a More Resilient Haitian State" can be found at rand.org.

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