Haiti, six years later

On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, more than a million displaced and virtually shutting down Haiti’s already weakened government. Out of the devastation, however, came some measure of hope. Haitians came together following the quake, acting in unison to rebuild their shattered nation and make it stronger than ever. The international community pledged $10 billion toward the country’s relief and reconstruction efforts.

“This is the down payment Haiti needs for wholesale national renewal,” then Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonWATCH LIVE: Trump speaks to supporters in Pennsylvania Trump to attack Clinton for past comments about Sanders supporters Race tailspins into gutter MORE remarked at the time. It was an opportunity to rebuild Haiti’s broken institutions, and “build back better” became the slogan of internationally backed relief efforts.

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But six years later, rather than a newly strengthened nation, Haiti finds itself mired in a political crisis that threatens to further erode the Haitian people’s confidence in their government and its institutions. If doubts remained about the failures and self-serving nature of the international response to the earthquake, the current electoral crisis, aided and abetted by those same actors in the international community, should put them to rest.

Was Haiti “built back better”? Tens of thousands officially remain displaced, while hundreds of thousands more are simply off the map, living in unsafe housing never repaired after the quake, or on the western outskirts of Port-au-Prince. This is where a new city has risen from the dusty hillsides where victims of the quake are buried – by some estimates now one of the largest cities in Haiti. 

Billions of dollars were squandered; either going immediately to for-profit “development” companies back in the capitals of donor countries or to haphazard and poorly planned projects implemented by thousands of disparate organizations that descended on Haiti looking for a piece of the pie. Shielded by corporate secrecy and a fear of criticism, there is very little information about how the billions have been spent despite U.S. lawmakers’ significant efforts to raise the bar of accountability around billions in U.S. assistance.  

But it’s clear where the aid didn’t go: 99 percent of humanitarian assistance funding bypassed the Haitian government entirely, and just a small fraction of longer-term development aid was channeled through it. In 2011, budget support was lower than it was before the quake, in 2009. Sak vide pa kanpe, as the Haitian proverb goes; “an empty sack cannot stand.”

Decimated by years of aid policies that deliberately created a parallel public delivery system, the government is no longer responsible for providing many basic services for its citizens. Health, education and other key sectors are dominated by private sector actors and funded by NGOs, church groups and international donors. Though there have been successes, the billions in aid flows largely reinforced existing dynamics — a failure in its own right. But the international community’s blind support for illegitimate political processes have been the fatal blow to “building back better.”

Elections held back in November of 2010 were marred by serious irregularities, allegations of fraud and extremely low voter turnout of about 20 percent of the electorate. Members of the U.S. Congress had warned that supporting such a flawed process “will come back to haunt the international community,” but the Obama administration and its principal allies in Haiti pushed forward. With millions already invested, and billions of aid dollars in the pipeline, the U.S. intervened and overturned the results of the first round presidential contest, thrusting Michel Martelly into the election’s second round, and eventually the presidency.

As Martelly replaced elected mayors with political appointees, as the terms of senators expired with no new elections held, and as the structure and power of the state was consolidated at the top, the international community stood by, backing the man they had helped put into the national palace.

Now, just weeks before the end of Martelly’s term, the international community is once again pushing forward with a flawed electoral process over the protests of Haitians. Having had five years to prepare and with the rebuilding of a nation on the line, one would expect voters to turn out to vote en masse – but once again 75 percent of registered voters simply stayed home during the presidential election’s first round. In contrast, in the presidential elections of 2006, over 60 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote.

An independent commission determined that the vote was plagued by irregularities and fraud, warning that the electoral council “no longer has the credibility to continue the electoral process without plunging the country into an even more serious crisis.” But just days after this report was released, the government announced that the run-off elections would be held January 24, with no time to make the needed reforms.

The U.S. and its allies eagerly applauded the announcement.

The failures of reconstruction and the systemic problems of our foreign aid complex have become increasingly clear to everyone — from journalists to policy makers — over the past six years. And reforms intended to change the way the U.S. administers aid are slowly taking root.

But if the international community wants to see a Haiti that is truly able to “build back better,” a Haiti that takes back the reins from the thousands of non-state actors who have dominated for too long and that strengthens its own institutions, it must begin by supporting legitimate elections. It cannot simply push forward with flawed processes that will only exacerbate threats to Haiti’s fragile democracy.

Unfortunately, that might be the hardest reform of all.

Johnston is a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and lead author for its "Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch" blog.