History of greed stacked odds against Haiti


One thing Haiti, Somalia, Afghanistan and Zaire have in common is the lack of an organised state, even pre-disaster

THE DANTEAN images from Port-au-Prince offer wrenching tableaux of what can happen when a natural catastrophe ravages a failing state with inadequate systems of governance. Failed states are a new challenge. During the cold war neither superpower could allow one of its client states, however grotesque or ramshackle, to fail. The former Zaire and Somalia are prime examples.

Mobutu ruled Zaire from 1965. The word “kleptocracy” was invented to describe his systematic pillaging of his people. Western support for Mobutu ended with the cold war and he fled, abandoning his country to one of the bloodiest conflicts of modern times, in which about five million people perished.

Siad Barre was the Somalian ruler from 1969 to 1991. He turned exploiting superpower support into an art form. Siad was originally a loyal ally of the Soviet Union until 1977, when Moscow decided, following the revolution in neighbouring Ethiopia, to favour Addis Ababa over Mogadishu. President Barre quickly became indispensable to the US, which provided him with some $100 million a year in aid until the cold war ended in 1989. He was overthrown in 1991, plunging his country into strife.

Afghanistan is a failing state despite direct military intervention by the Soviet Union in 1979 and the US in 2001. The brutal weakness of Khartoum governments in hastily assembled Sudan and recent concerns over the limitations of the Sanaa authorities in not-quite-unified Yemen have moved both countries towards a failing label.

And then there is Haiti.

One thing Zaire, Somalia, Afghanistan and Haiti have in common is that there wasn’t all that much of an organised state before it collapsed. There was no universal system of primary education, little in the way of operational local authorities, and the security services were more designed to protect the regime than serve the people.

Whatever hard currency national budgets existed mainly consisted of aid or sales of natural resources. This meant a budget exclusively controlled by the president. Varying amounts wound up in his private accounts, with the remainder often disbursed according to his monarchic whims.

When such regimes descend into anarchy and/or civil war, their meagre state structures collapse. Security forces degenerate into militia of one kind or another. Those who can, move abroad, depriving the country of sorely needed human skills.

The poor flee to refugee camps in neighbouring countries, Congolese to Uganda, Somalians to Kenya, Sudanese to Chad, Afghans to Pakistan. Others migrate, legally or clandestinely, to wherever offers the slightest hope of the most marginal improvement in living conditions.

Teachers struggle on without salaries or materials but are eventually forced to abandon their schools to survive. Illiteracy rates rise and even if some vestige of secondary education survives, fewer and fewer students can avail of it. University becomes a remote dream.

This leaves a chronic shortage of basic literacy skills, never mind professional qualifications, when some stability eventually returns. How can you operate a police force or a training service when, as in Haiti, illiteracy rates can run as high as 80 per cent?

All societies need some form of governance, and when states collapse alternative structures emerge. These are often regional or tribal as in Afghanistan and Somalia today. Imperfect, traditionalist and brutal as they may be, they are usually better than anarchy.

A working arrangement between Kabul and tribal leaders offers what is probably Afghanistan’s only path to stability. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has a semi-operational state with shifting, but workable, relations with his country’s main clans.

And then there is Haiti.

The Spaniards destroyed the native Taino people. Their successors, French plantation owners, depended on annual shipments of 40,000 African slaves. At one point Haiti accounted for one-third of the entire African slave trade. Twelve years of bitter warfare ended with Haitian independence in 1804. A country of largely uneducated slaves with their ethnic and tribal networks shattered took over a ruined economy.

Haiti was obliged to pay reparations to France until 1947. The US occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 to enforce payments to US banks. The Duvaliers, père et fils, ruled with American support from 1957 until 1986, when Baby Doc fled with upwards of $900 million of his country’s money.

Out of the chaos emerged the beginnings of something better, with the world acting as a benevolent, if inadequate, midwife.

Hédi Annabi, the skilled Tunisian head of the UN mission in Haiti, was able to observe in his new year message that “2009 has not been a bad year for Haiti”. Positive signs were emerging even in shantytowns like Cité Soleil or Bel Air. Some 9,000 UN troops and police under Brazilian command had created order, if not yet law, and the government of President René Préval had begun to function when the earthquake struck.

Annabi, one of those skilled, dedicated UN officials whose work has brought relief and hope to millions, is presumed dead in his Port-au-Prince office where he was welcoming seven senior police officers from China. He would have urged us to focus on hope, solidarity and duty as the world struggles to turn the Haitian catastrophe into a “mere” disaster. He would have mourned the police officer from Chad who lost his life serving humanity, and lauded the rescue team from Iceland as it took survivors from the rubble.

Ten of thousands of Haitians have died. Tens of thousands more may perish. Millions are homeless, having lost whatever little they once had.

An earthquake may have provided the spark for this tragedy, but the fuel had been stockpiled for decades by incompetent, corrupt, greedy or just plain blinkered leaders. A species by no means confined to Port-au-Prince.