Haiti Reconstruction: Two cheers (and one big boo) for Paul Collier’s plan

January 29, 2010 9 By admin

Oxford economics professor Paul Collier is the policy entrepreneur’s policy entrepreneur. The Paul Colierman who coined the phrase ‘bottom billion’ has an unparalleled ability to reach decision makers with cogent, timely and well written arguments. Paul has a long-standing connection with Haiti – he was previously Ban Ki-Moon’s special adviser on the country, (read his January 2009 paper for the UN Secretary General here), so unlike some other commentators he didn’t have to find it on a map when the earthquake hit. On Monday, he set out his stall on Haitian reconstruction in the Financial Times, calling for ‘three essentials – a realistic economic strategy, sufficient money, and effective and dedicated management’. The first two make a lot of sense, but I find the third very worrying indeed.

The two cheers are that Haiti presented a comprehensive cooperation strategy to aid donors in April 2009 (French original here), much of which still makes sense. The UN’s ad hoc advisory group on Haiti produced its own proposals in June 2009. Collier stresses that starting from those, rather than going back to the drawing board, would save months, ensure the plans are properly thought through and recognize the hard work of the many Haitians who helped draw them up. Secondly, find the money – several billion dollars – for both the strategy and the cost of reconstruction. (and make sure there is money for both – far too much of the funds in an emergency are tied to spending in the first months or couple of years, leaving future reconstruction starved of cash).

But his ‘third essential’ worries me and is worth quoting in full:

‘Effective and dedicated management is the most difficult. In the past within Haiti the interests of corruption have postured as the protection of sovereignty, while internationally, every actor has offered to co-ordinate, yet none has wanted to be co-ordinated. What is needed is to pool money into a single “Haiti Fund” that can be used for development. Both the Haitian government and the international community need temporarily to vest authority, both for spending money and for the swift construction of housing, hospitals, ports and power stations, in a single entity, probably co-led by a respected Haitian and a world figure.’

This strikes me as a dangerously technocratic vision, which runs the risk of equating development with management, politics with corruption, and benign leadership with outsiders. It is not a neutral suggestion – it is intrinsically a political project. If you create a parallel authority, it will acquire its own staff, budgets, contractors and identity. Inevitably, it will resist being wound down and power being handed back to the Haitian state. As with Paul’s blueprint for Independent Service Authorities, which he proposed for Haiti in his January 2009 paper, the lack of a clear exit strategy is truly alarming. Worst case is that you set up something you don’t know how to get rid of, and talent, funds and power is drained from the Haitian state indefinitely. Yet we know that development requires an effective and accountable state – technocratic short cuts invariably go sour.

Rebuild the institutions (the buildings can wait)

Rebuild the institutions (the buildings can wait)

Not only that, but parts of the Haitian state are actually intact and already working well – the ministry in charge of water is effectively coordinating the response on water and sanitation (where Oxfam’s response is concentrated), convening meetings, allocating tasks etc, prompting one Oxfam staffer to describe it as the best-organised effort he has ever witnessed in an emergency. Rather than bypass the government, why not do a needs assessment, ministry by ministry, and provide cash and French-speaking secondments (Canada and France surely have some spare civil servants!) for rebuilding the capacity of each, preferably well beyond pre-earthquake levels?

Secondly, one source of organization and power that has already proved its worth in the relief effort, Haitian civil society, is largely absent from this scheme (and from Paul’s January 2009 paper). Haiti needs to rebuild society from the ruins and take the opportunity to “build back better”, addressing Haiti’s historic injustices. Many grassroots Haitian organizations are hard at work doing just that, and have been for years – they need to be at the heart of the reconstruction effort.

The Economist last week picked up Collier’s idea: ‘Given the local vacuum of power, this is the best idea around. The authority should be set up under the auspices of the UN or of an ad hoc group (the United States, Canada, the European Union and Brazil, for example). It should be led by a suitable outsider (Bill Clinton, who is the UN’s special envoy for Haiti, would be ideal, perhaps to be followed by Brazil’s Lula after he steps down as president in a year’s time) and a prominent Haitian, such as the prime minister. To provide services, it should work with aid groups.’ Again, no politics, no exit strategy, no voice for Haitian civil society. This is not Bosnia or Afghanistan—Haiti suffered a major disaster but it is not a country at war. This isn’t a conflicted nation where people can’t find sufficient consensus to lead their nation forward. And there are thousands of Haitians with the talent, experience and education to manage the task of reconstruction. Why would they need Bill Clinton to run the show?

Such proposals are often a sincere effort to respond to the urgency and suffering in Haiti, but the ‘just do something’ mentality can lead to big mistakes which we will rue in years to come. The effort to rebuild a Haitian state that is both more effective and accountable than its predecessors has to be led by Haitians themselves. It will be messy, slow, political and difficult, but bypassing the state altogether is not the answer.