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Our poorest neighbour: is there reason to hope for a better future for Haiti?

Haiti: Hope for a Fragile State Yasmine Shamsie and Andrew S. Thompson, editors Wilfrid Laurier University Press 150 pages, softcover ISBN 9780889205109

Haiti is a poor little place that tugs at the heartstrings. Countless other countries--in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Central America--are also poverty stricken, violent and fragile; their misery blurs across our television screens every day and many hands are briefly wrung. Haiti, on the other hand, is less known to Canadians--at least outside Montreal. But for those who have had occasion to take an interest, Haiti, by far the poorest country in our own hemisphere, stands out crisply and captures the imagination. Graham Greene, notably, featured and captured the mysterious atmosphere of 1950s Haiti in his novel The Comedians. Recent visitors would say that if there were changes since then, they have been for the worse.

Why is this country with such a history of incompetence and violence, largely of its own making, so appealing? Why should anyone care? Perhaps it is because Haiti is in our hemisphere. Perhaps it is because Haitians who have immigrated to Canada and the United States are charming, intelligent and dedicated to their homeland--as long as they do not have to live there. Or perhaps it is simply a mysterious spell cast by the voodoo priests who still openly influence local culture.

Haiti has every reason to be a success. It was the first independent democracy in the world run by ethnic Africans--ex-slaves who threw over their French masters in 1804--and the second democracy in this hemisphere after the United States. It has deep-water harbours, beautiful beaches and mountains, and is only an hour and a half by twice-daily flights from Miami. It covers half the island of Hispaniola; the other half is the Dominican Republic, a country that might as well be in a different universe. Haiti's languages are French and Creole; the DR is overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking. The latter is home to a thriving manufacturing economy and international baseball stars. It is covered with tropical growth and verdant agriculture, and its beaches are lined with hotels.

Haiti's half of the island, on the other hand, is stripped of trees, cut down over decades by a destitute population to make charcoal for cooking. Its hills are brown and eroded, its polluted beaches littered with garbage. Its capital city, Port-au-Prince, has potholes the size of bear pits where roads should be, and slums that are so violent they are no-go areas even for the omnipresent international troops in white United Nations vehicles.

For 200 years, Haiti has been the victim of its own leaders. Virtually without exception they have been at best untrustworthy or incompetent and more likely a combination of corrupt, repressive, manipulative and cruel. International engagement has been spasmodic and, as in other countries, has often propped up decadent leaders in the interest of regional stability, if not of the Haitian people. Only within the last 15 years has a serious effort been made to build a democratic and economically viable society. Those efforts met with only limited success, largely due to the appalling leadership of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but in part, I suspect, because everyone always expects Haiti to fail.

We are now seeing the early stages of a genuine movement to turn Haiti around. How this stirring of a different attitude began is hard to decipher, but it exists within Haiti itself, in the international aid agencies and in a few dedicated countries like Canada, one of the few that never gave up.

Canadian interest is broadening beyond government and aid organizations as evidenced by Haiti: Hope for a Fragile State, a compendium of papers presented at a conference at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario, in November 2005 and edited by Yasmine Shamsie and Andrew S. Thompson. At fewer than 150 pages it is not the definitive text on Haitian history, its challenges today or its prospects tomorrow. Nor does it deliver on the promised "hope" incorporated into its title. There is more guarded pessimism in it than hope. But it is a useful summary of the state of play as it was in the autumn of 2005. At that time Haiti was lurching toward its most significant national election to date, held after many postponements, in February 2006.

The book is not a treatise on the political process and its many failures. Its focus, as stated in the introduction, is "the society itself, the sources of difference, the origins of violence, and the possibility of change." The scope of this objective is sufficiently broad and profound that it is beyond the capacity of eight authors to accomplish in such a slender volume, however knowledgeable and distinguished they might be.

And they are knowledgeable. Each chapter is by a different authority, each a specialist in fields from UN peacekeeping to private sector investment in developing countries to the role of international economic institutions, a different set of actors from those who frequently dominate foreign policy discussions. All have spent considerable time on the ground in Haiti, and this combined experience adds to the credibility of the theses presented. Somehow, however, the book is vaguely dissatisfying. On the whole, the essays are descriptive and gloomy rather than assertive, and leave readers hanging, wondering what should come next.

Indeed the final chapter--updated after February's watershed election--does not outline what the new government's agenda is--or even what it should be--but simply drops in a section critiquing the election process itself. That is definitely of value, but falls short in that it does not take us into the future or offer hints as to what we might expect next. This article has the advantage of being contributed by a Haitian professor whose home is Port-au-Prince, and it has the authenticity of coming not only from a distinguished academic but from someone who is in it, of it, tastes it and smells it. Its disadvantage for those anglophones whose bilinguistic skills need brushing up is that it is included in the original French. At the risk of being politically incorrect, let it be said that the book's impact would probably be enhanced by including, in addition to the original, an English translation.

The value of this book is that it is a refresher course on how Haiti came to its present state and why it deserves international support. The opening chapters go back to Haiti's colonial history and draw the conclusion that the country's early plantation economy led to the strong-man rule that has persisted even into the time of President Aristide, finally ousted in 2004 after two kicks at the presidential can. History may offer this tenuous explanation for the staying power of the country's small elite, for the relentless social polarization, and the extreme poverty and violence among the masses, both rural and urban; still, it is puzzling and depressing that Haiti alone among its Caribbean neighbours has dragged colonialism into the 21st century, and that this history is viewed by seemingly knowledgeable observers as a determinant of the future.

Intricately involved with Haiti's history is the almost complete absence of progress on human rights, a subject that is thoroughly examined. Murder and riots of the most unsavoury sort have accompanied changes of regime, including elections, and the military, which had never fired a shot except at the Haitian people, kept control of the population on behalf of its leaders of choice by simply executing the opposition. One of Aristide's few accomplishments as president was to abolish the army, which had overthrown him in a coup d'etat within nine months of his first election. On his return from exile and after being reinstalled in 1994, he disbanded the military, to no one's regret. The problem was, and continues to be, that no alternative employment was available and no weapons were given up. Today, ex-soldiers are among the gang leaders who plague Haiti's slums. The gangs are responsible for some hundreds of random kidnappings per year, rendering Haiti's streets perilous, particularly in Port-au-Prince. Social stability is further disrupted by egregious corruption among judges, who are not yet paid a decent wage.

All of these problems are thoroughly aired in this book. A more recent topic for discussion, included in an interesting essay here, is the role of the private sector--particularly the so-called Haitian diaspora. This is an area worthy of further study. Development agencies do not partner well with private sector groups, but the need to build bridges between the two should be readily apparent. The business community resident in Haiti and Haitians living in Canada and the U.S. can be important contributors to Haiti's future and, as the contributor points out, will be included in future planning by donor groups, including the international financial institutions.

Among Haiti's external partners, the UN and the U.S. merit chapters of their own. The role of the UN mission (known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH) is factually presented by a Canadian who is the former commander of the UN Task Force in Port-au-Prince. Unfortunately, the Haitian people are weary of the UN but cannot live without it. It is responsible for assisting Haiti to establish its new governance structure, to rebuild its police force, to build a secure environment, to assist human rights institutions and to dispense aid. The mandate is complex, not to say confused, but, according to the author, is inadequate to create the conditions necessary to solve Haiti's long-term problems. It almost goes without saying that the mission is underfunded.

Finally, the book also explores the difficult relationship between Haiti and the U.S.--the clumsy management of immigration, drug and security issues by Washington in our own time and two incompetent occupations in the past. At the same time, the U.S. has been Haiti's primary source of aid, is an ally at the UN and is an important market for Haiti's modest exports. Many of Haiti's leaders have been educated at esteemed U.S. institutions. The real problem is that, truth be told, in the bowels of the State Department and in some corners in Congress, Haiti is seen as a nuisance country, a source of drugs and illegal immigrants, always in need of a handout and full of seemingly intractable problems. But Haiti is not going away, and U.S. friendship is essential to its future.

So, by the way, is Canada's, although it is barely referenced in these papers. The preface written by the conference organizers highlights Canada's emphasis on the integration of the "three D's" (development, democracy and diplomacy) specifically as it applies to Haiti. It is frustrating, therefore, that there is no analysis of how this integration of what were formerly silos is working on the ground. In addition, Haiti is Canada's second largest aid recipient after Afghanistan: some $519 million was recently pledged over the next four years. Last year Canada donated just over $100 million, including $31 million for the election. These figures do not include indirect contributions through Canada's support of international financial institutions and various UN programs. In addition, the Canadian military participated in the UN force for two years and, while the military presence has now been reduced to a handful of officers, plays a key role in UN leadership. Finally, at present nearly 100 officers from the RCMP and the Quebec provincial police are in the forefront of training and assisting the neophyte Haitian police force. While the book's purpose is to discuss Haiti, not Canada, it is overly modest to gloss over Canada's contribution and to neglect highlighting the significance of what is for both countries an important relationship.

While the book is long on pessimism and short on solutions, the contributors all agree on one thing: the need for the international community to stay the course in Haiti for the long term. Having returned from Haiti in November--my fourth visit in 15 months as part of an international mission--with this I concur. With its guarded pessimism, what the book misses due to its unfortunate timing is the measurable progress that has been made through the election process and under the leadership of newly elected president Rene Preval. For all its false starts and procedural flaws no one inside or outside Haiti is disputing the election results, and to date the president is benefiting from what might be called a post-election honeymoon. This is a time for the international community to reinvigorate its commitment to Haiti, which so far it has, surprisingly, done.

There is no lack of things to do, as the book under discussion makes clear. Two contradictory issues stand out as the president identifies priorities and initiates action. The first is the need for donor countries to deliver on their promises and ensure the committed funds flow in a timely way. Second is the limited absorption capacity of the Haitian government to administer the funds. However, in the past Haiti's major export has been the educated among its population and talent is sorely needed to execute the necessary plans. Happily, some expatriates have already returned, at least on a temporary basis, to help the new government implement its programs. No doubt others could be enticed to do so.

Haiti: Hope for a Fragile State is well worth reading as a summary of where Haiti stood before its recent election, and as an indication of the massive challenge the new government took on. One of its authors told me the book aspired to generate more interest in Haiti among Canadians, who knowingly or not have a stake in ensuring its success. I also urge the sponsors and authors to come together again and review their findings in a year or so, when pessimism may be replaced with tangible evidence of progress and meaningful hope for Haiti's future.

The Honourable Barbara McDougall is a former secretary of state for External Affairs for Canada. She is now an advisor to Toronto law firm Aird & Berlis and a member of the Haiti International Assessment Committee based in Washington DC. She has written several articles and a paper on Haiti.
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Title Annotation:Haiti: Hope for a Fragile State
Author:McDougall, Barbara
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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