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Critics believe foreign aid seldom offers more than Band-Aid solutions to intractable structural problems.

Win McNamee/2010 Getty Images

Confronted with widespread destruction and marauding groups of young men, the distribution of aid in quake-ravaged Haiti is moving at an agonizingly slow pace. And pressure is mounting on Haitian authorities and the international donor community to get basic services up and running. Indeed, if poorly co-ordinated and managed, the global outpouring of sympathy could do more harm than good. With rising expectations from Haiti's sprawling shantytowns to its wealthier zones, a failure to deliver services could trigger major unrest.

So how should the international community help Haiti rebuild its institutions and deliver services? Opinion tends to coalesce into two camps. On one side are the reformers - in Naomi Klein's formulation, the "disaster capitalists." To the reformers, disasters in fragile states such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Haiti represent opportunities to "build back better." Jean-Louis Warnholz and Paul Collier, for example, have proposed a Marshall Plan, including a strategic scheme to re-engineer Haiti's economic and social foundations.

On the other side are the critics, themselves social activists, veteran aid practitioners and citizens deeply skeptical of the global aid industry. Critics believe foreign aid seldom offers more than Band-Aid solutions to what are ultimately intractable structural problems related to unequal terms of trade, governance and underdevelopment. They argue that development assistance itself is a pretext for pro-market and wider geopolitical agendas.

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At the very least, the Haitian quake offers an opportunity for Canada and other donor governments to rethink their relationship with fragile states. Having established diplomatic relations with Haiti in 1954 and development programming in 1968, the Canadian International Development Agency and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade should be commended for the commitment of their partnership. Nevertheless, now is the time to recalibrate Canada's approach.

At a minimum, Canada can press the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to issue reconstruction grants rather than loans. Haiti is already a highly indebted country, and suffocating loans would stifle genuine efforts to build, much less "build back better." Rather than confidently prescribing "solutions," this new partnership could be built around principles of empathy, humility and respect. Since announcing a major donor conference on Jan. 25 in Montreal, Canada has a opportunity to shape the way forward.

In addition to humanitarian assistance, Canada can also help Haitian authorities assume the minimum functions of sovereign statehood. A precondition of the Haitian government's legitimacy is its ability to deliver basic services. And while direct delivery of such services may be ideal in theory, it will be impossible to ensure in practice in the short to medium term. There are many reasons for this, ranging from limited human and technical capabilities to an inability to ensure transparent public allocations for basic needs.

While less immediately visible than bags of rice and plastic shelters, the fact remains that Haiti needs a coherent strategy to deliver certain core services. This is a more radical proposal than might first appear. A pre-quake household survey in Haiti's downtown found that only one in five residents had access to piped water. Just over half had sporadic access to electricity. In virtually all sectors, Haitians relied on informal providers and their own networks. If the Haitian state is to renew its social contract, it needs to forge credible partnerships with legitimate (and preferably Haitian) non-governmental agencies and private providers.

As pressing as the current humanitarian needs are, Haiti's leadership will need to clarify service delivery priorities and how best to perform them. How Haiti and its international partners proceed will shape the government's legitimacy and the well-being of its citizens. If services are managed in a co-ordinated and accountable manner, it would allow the government to perform a critical stewardship role. Haiti might then set its own policy agenda, set and monitor standards, and plan seriously for the long term.

Robert Muggah is research director of the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey.

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