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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Is Haiti hopeless? Can we 'fix' it? Add to ...

Who can offer the most help to the desperate children of Haiti? Is it Bill Clinton, Jeffrey Sachs, the World Bank or the UN? Is it the many experts who are calling for a Marshall Plan to "fix" Haiti once and for all, or the donor nations that have pledged billions for the task?

Personally, I would choose people like Eric and Nicole Pauyo. The Haitian-Canadian couple, who live in a prosperous suburb of Montreal, have taken in eight nieces and nephews left orphaned by the Jan. 12 earthquake. "I didn't think twice," said Nicole, who's 62. The Pauyos have already raised three kids of their own. One of them is at Harvard.

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For Haitians, the best way to improve their lives is to leave Haiti. More than a million Haitians now live abroad, including 100,000 in Canada. Life in Haiti, meantime, has become worse. Children go hungry, and barely a third finish primary school. About a 10th are restaveks (from the French reste avec , or stay with) - virtual child slaves who are sent to work as unpaid servants in the city by their impoverished parents.

And child trafficking is alive and well. One journalist, Ben Skinner, recently flew to Port-au-Prince - just five hours by air from New York City - and negotiated in broad daylight to buy a 12-year-old girl for household and sexual services. The price was $50. "The trafficker told me that he could easily convince parents to send their children from the grossly underdeveloped highlands of southern Haiti," he wrote in his book, A Crime So Monstrous . Some families are so desperate, they beg foreigners to take their children, no questions asked.

It's not that the world community has turned its back on Haiti. The world has shovelled money into Haiti for decades - more than $8-billion in all, not counting the new aid pledged to rebuild the country after the quake. Haiti is awash in hundreds of aid agencies. Yet, it's 25 per cent poorer today than it was in 1945. The UN maintains a 9,000-strong security force, at a cost of more than $500-million a year. Yet, Haiti has been described as a Hobbesian nightmare. Crime and violence are rampant, armed gangs operate freely, and more than half the country's women have been violently abused.

A great deal of aid never reaches ordinary Haitians. In 2008, after the country was flooded by torrential rains, poor people were reduced to eating mud. Canada and other nations shipped in extra food relief. But containers full of food rotted in the nation's ports because of corruption and government red tape.

Some aid projects in Haiti are wonderful, and deserve support. But they are like bandages on an open wound. And they are vulnerable to the mayhem and misrule that plague the country. A series of evaluations by international authorities through the years have flatly concluded that all the money flowing into Haiti has achieved no permanent improvements. A 2004 report by the Canadian International Development Agency concluded: "Considering the resources invested, scattered Canadian projects do not seem to provide a critical mass of results, do not foster efficiency and effectiveness of the action taken, and make it difficult to achieve sustainable results in view of the surrounding environment."

Haiti is among the worst countries in the world for corruption and government ineffectiveness. The current government is marginally better (i.e., less thuggish) than its predecessor. But it can't even deliver basic safety, never mind schools and roads. It has no ability to administer the aid flowing in from around the world. Its main function is to distribute money to people on its payroll, many of whom are phantom employees.

The fact that Haiti has elections does not mean it has a culture of democracy. As in Afghanistan, elections are seen as just another political tool. There is no functioning judicial system. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent by international donors on governance, democratization and institution-building - the new mantra in the aid world - have accomplished nothing. Haiti is officially designated as a "fragile state," but it's also been called failed, parasitic and kleptocratic. No wonder two-thirds of Haitians say they'd emigrate if they could.

Can such a broken state be "fixed"? Lots of people seem to think so. They seem to have a lot of good ideas, too. What they can't explain is why this time will be different.

Call it the myth of authoritarian paternalism - the same myth that's resulted in so many failed development efforts for so many years around the world. The phrase was coined by William Easterly, a controversial development economist who argued that most aid doesn't work. Authoritarian paternalism, as he explains, is the belief that rational, omniscient experts can solve society's problems from the top down. But this is a delusion. "We don't know how to re-engineer Haiti," he says. "No one does."

Still, the situation isn't hopeless. We may not know how to fix failed states, but we can still help individuals. For example, Ben Skinner, the journalist, is a strong supporter of the aid agency Beyond Borders, which has decades of experience in Haitian child protection. Its goals are modest. In Haiti, it tries to strengthen rural communities and keep kids in school so their parents won't send them away to be restaveks . The schools fell down in the quake, so now they want to buy big tents to house the schools.

William Easterly and others believe the quickest and best way out of poverty is immigration. Ninety-nine per cent of Haitians live on less than $10 a day. Even a taxi driver in Montreal is vastly better off than almost anyone who lives in Haiti.

Haitian immigrants are resourceful and hard-working. They don't just create wealth for themselves - they send it home. By one estimate, they send home more than $1.5-billion a year - much more than the foreign aid Haiti has traditionally received.

As the international community holds more conferences about how to fix Haiti, we might want to keep these facts in mind. The truth is, Haiti's greatest asset is other Haitians - ones like the Pauyos, who took in their eight nieces and nephews.

Nicole Pauyo, in an interview with The Globe and Mail last week, described the day she found one of her nieces crying from grief. She tried to console her by promising that the future would be brighter. "Because now she was in Canada, a great country where the sky is the limit. I said it rains sometimes. But rain can make new flowers grow."

 

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