Léogane is a medium-sized town in south-west Haiti where Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first emperor of Haiti (1804-06), is said to have married the future empress Marie-Claire Heureuse, with Toussaint L’Ouverture as best man.
Léogane achieved a far sadder fame on 12th January this year, as the town at the epicentre of the giant earthquake which devastated much of the country. About 80% of the houses and buildings of the town were destroyed or badly damaged, with probably thousands dead.
It was therefore logical that Léogane should be chosen, together with its three neighbouring communes, by Haiti’s Minister of the Interior and Territorial Authorities, Paul Antoine Bien-Aimé (great name for a politician) for a new international local government initiative. I am proud to play a part.
I recently returned from a one-week “scoping mission” , to kick-start this initiative, organised by local government associations from Canada, France and the Netherlands (I was there for our Dutch colleagues of VNG International). We had three objectives:
• to analyse the situation in the four communes (which have a mix of urban and rural communities, and to reach conclusions on short and medium term steps to rebuild a functioning local government system
• to meet the nascent national local government associations, with a view to helping them become effective organisations, able to work with the central government to make decentralisation work for the country
• to look into the needs of and potential support for the capital city, Port-au-Prince (this involved colleagues from major cities like Montreal and Barcelona).
Assessing the problems
I was asked to take part mainly on the second objective – to assess the scope for future work with and for the national associations of Haiti. But to get a better idea of the scale of the challenges and work confronting us, we visited Léogane and Gressier (via a main road whose holes were as evident as its surface) and met with the mayors, vice-mayors and community leaders from all four communes. The position was as stark as you could imagine. The physical damage, four months on, was still overwhelming.
Thousands and thousands of people were huddled together in vast tent cities in the centre and across the town, and in hundreds of smaller groupings in the countryside. I had had the mental image that only towns really get damaged in earthquakes. Not so – the damage across the rural areas was proportionately no less.
There was hardly any functioning local government in the towns and little obvious evidence of national government presence. The town halls were either damaged beyond use (as in Léogane, which at least had got some temporary basic structures to work from) or destroyed (the rest). Hardly any employees remained – in part because outside NGOs have lured the competent ones away by paying higher salaries.
The local leaders were quite upset that these NGOs have landed in their towns and started acting in their area without any reference to them. The NGOs’ work is for the most part necessary and useful – but often skewed to their own ideological-religious perspectives, and not always respectful or even conscious of the local governance set-up. Yet if Haiti is to work as an orderly independent society in the future, one stark pre-condition is a functioning government, at local and national levels.
The issues are really difficult. There is a pressure to rebuild as fast as possible – the rainy season is arriving, and tent cities are no great place to live during tropical storms. Schools need to reopen by the autumn if a generation is not to lose out on education. And so on. Yet the scale of the damage also offers, paradoxically, a one-off chance to think again about the whole urban plan for each town – should one simply rebuild what was there (hopefully better built), or should one – for example – widen a street, or develop new zoning for housing or other uses? Some of my colleagues had experience working in urban planning and reconstruction in Sri Lanka and Indonesia after the tsunami, but they feel that Haiti is their biggest ever challenge.
We concluded, at the end of our week, that the first task is to establish a physical base and local government presence in the towns, and also to provide a regional office to deal with issues common to the whole 4 commune area, like water basin work, as much of the area has long been liable to flooding. This means building temporary buildings at first, and employing a small number of key staff, to start showing that local government is up and running and starting to provide public services, however modestly at the outset. The aim is also to provide some temporary buildings for schooling, to be ready for the restart in the autumn, as well as a place of shelter from storms, and other basic facilities.
The visit ended with a feedback session in Port-au-Prince with the man from the ministry, an impressive young official called Jude Saint-Natus, and with the mayors and vice-mayors in which we presented our conclusions and proposals for future co-operation. These were welcomed but heaven knows Haiti is a difficult country to operate in at the best of times – which this is not. We then had a wrap-up meeting with Minister Bien-Aimé, who likewise gave his backing.
An overcrowded ministry, a spacious NGO
You cannot easily imagine the terrible working conditions which Jude and his committed team work in today. Their ministry building was destroyed, and they now work in extremely overcrowded offices (we saw some 10 people in one not-so-large room), with files piled up wherever space permits. The next day we visited a Canadian-funded NGO, which advises local authorities in Haiti on local development plans. We met in a good-sized meeting room, and its staff, we could see, work in spacious offices, with far better equipment…. something is really wrong when you see these imbalances of resource and power.
I hope we will prove able to deliver. The Haitian government has a policy of democratic decentralisation, and the mayors and vice-mayors are elected for a 4 year term. In November, the next local government elections are due to take place at the same time as the Presidential election, deferred a few months due to the earthquake. Haiti’s elections have sometimes been far from peaceful and of imperfect democracy – we have to hope that these will pass well, though you can feel the political tension (and read the writing on the wall in the form of omnipresent political graffiti).
Some of the senior foreign embassy people we met were far from hopeful about the future. An ambassador commented that no policy of decentralisation could work unless there was first an effective presence of the national government in the regions of Haiti. Time will tell if he is right.
The local government set-up
One problem we faced was simply to understand the local government set-up (we argued amongst ourselves other over this, to no avail since there is no clear answer). According to the 1987 Constitution of Haiti, there are two levels of elected local authority. First, there are the “communal sections”, smaller areas within the boundaries of the commune, each with its own elected leadership and assembly. Then there is the Commune itself. The Constitution is silent on the respective roles of each, and it is evident that in reality, the two levels have different ideas on who does or should do what and how they should relate.
This urgently needs sorting out, but appears to need an amendment to the Constitution… not a simple matter. The same tension was played out in our meeting with the two national federations, one representing the Mayors of Haiti (i.e. the communes) and one representing the CASECs, the communal sections. We will need to work with both in future, if they so wish, but this problem adds a layer of complexity.
The human dimension
But let’s get back to the human story. On my visit to Léogane and Gressier, we were taken by the Mayor of Gressier to the seafront of his town. It was the national holiday, lots of people had left Port-au-Prince for the day, in cars or wonderfully-colourful crowded tap-taps (very basic transport buses), each with its religious dictum (“The eternal is great”, “the Father is merciful”). Many people were swimming, the music playing, the rum was flowing, a young man was being moderately flagellated as he gripped a palm tree….
The mayor pointed to a pile of rubble near by the sea. “This was my house” he told us. A few yards away, an older man sat on a bench with a faraway look. The Mayor introduced us and pointed to another pile of rubble – “this is all that is left of the hotel he owned here.” “I have lost everything” said the man as he sat there.
When we first arrived in Haiti we were taken to an apartment block in the hills way above the city. It was a temporary hotel, much less basic than we had expected. I had heard that it was run by the people who owned the Montana Hotel which had collapsed. It was only on the last days of our visit that we realised that the Montana Hotel was not some way away, but just 50 yards up the hill our of the back door… and was just a pile of rubble. Many had died in it, including tourists. Our building, set into the hill, showed no evidence of damage. The staff who served us must have been part of the hotel’s staff. Not a word was said about it.
The rains arrive
One night we were driven back via a long detour around the capital city, over the roughest unpaved roads you can imagine, with shacks and people everywhere. Tens and tens of thousands of people in the most rudimentary forms of shelter. A reminder to us that for millions in Haiti, the earthquake has not really made living conditions worse. They were already as basic as can be imagined.
On our last evening in town we went to the Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince, where Graham Greene famously wrote The Comedians. The quality of ice in my rum and fruit punch ensured me an uncomfortable return flight home, but the hotel is unmissable for its aura of faded splendour and beautiful vaudou art on the walls. We sat on the verandah as the storm broke, and the lighting and thunder flashed and crashed their menaces from the gods. The rain was intense. The people were in tents. As we drove home, the down-town streets were flooded, a foot deep in water. The rainy season had begun. It will last for 6 months. The homeless have no place to run.
Footnote 1. Haiti is a country born into sovereign debt. Having fought ferocious wars with France, Britain and Spain for independence, Haiti was coerced by France (with gunboat diplomacy) in 1825 to agree to “compensate” France for the loss of property rights in the slave-colony, in the sum of 150 million francs, or over $20 billion, five times the country’s export value. To repay, it had to borrow from US, German and French banks at extortionate rates. By 1900 some 80% of Haiti’s budget was spent on debt repayments – the French debt lasted till 1947. Furthermore, President Jefferson, fearing slave uprisings in the USA, refused to recognize Haiti’s independence and launched a trade embargo which stayed in place till 1862. So the country was born and brought up as a Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC), doomed to poverty irrespective of the quality of its “governance”. And Haiti was one of the last countries to benefit from the HIPC programme of the last decade.
In 2009, Haiti owed $1.247 billion, despite the write-off of about one-third of the debt. And in recent days, the World Bank has agreed to write off the relatively small sums owed to it.
Footnote 2. The international funding of Haiti’s reconstruction (or refoundation, as the government calls it), is being mainly made through the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission which is co-chaired by the Prime Minister of Haiti, Jean-Max Bellerive, and ex-US President Bill Clinton. The Commission, which has to decide how to spend the money, and ensure it is properly spent, is made up of equal numbers of Haitians and non-Haitians from the development “community” including donors, creditors and representatives of international organisations. About $9 billion has been promised in aid, over half of it due to be spent in the next 2 years. An interesting experiment in post-sovereign governance, which is not appreciated by all Haitians – some see it as nearer to a form of Trusteeship.