Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Foreign Policy: Haiti's Regrowth

This NPR segment includes commentary on Haiti from Bob Perito and Larry Birns, who has the dubious distinction of being both my former boss and the only man I've ever hit with a car. While Perito and Birns agree that international support for Haiti has been less than reliable, they disagree regarding how much room there is for optimism on Haiti's regrowth.
Birns: ... the real problem that we've suffered in Haiti - and probably was a broader kind of problem elsewhere in the developing world - was a great reluctance to sustain a funding effort to a country where, for example, it may be each day that Haiti is in the news and tomorrow it may be Rwanda, Darfur or Ethiopia or some other new tragedy. And very often, what we have is an evaporation of existing commitments.

Perito: ... last year was something of renaissance in Haitian terms. The economy was in positive growth terms, businesses were beginning to invest in Haiti. Haiti is the beneficiary of new economic incentives provided by the U.S. Congress for Trade. And so, things, you know, things were looking up ... I think that now we have to - we have to update our perspectives on Haiti.
My own opinion is considerably more moderate. I always found Larry to be intelligent, well informed and gracious (particularly regarding that episode with the car) but we didn't always see eye-to-eye, and I have in the past adopted a more optimistic view on U.S.-Latin American relations. I can't offer any insight into Perito's personality, but his view strikes me as going too far in the opposite direction. Even with the sympathy of the world and an outpouring of economic and logistical support, Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. If our goal is to rebuild Haiti to pre-quake standards, such actions would still abandon thousands of Haitians to poverty and hunger. And if our goal is to rebuild to a superior level, then we'll be relying on an increased level of support, without any indication that such support is sustainable. After all, you'd be hard pressed to prove that Phuket or New Orleans are in better shape now than they were a decade ago.

Ultimately I believe that people are moved by the situation in Haiti, and there are many individuals, governments, religious organizations and NGOs with the desire to help them. But I think it's inevitable that some will lose interest when the cameras move away, and even those that are willing will be limited by resource constraints. I hope Perito's optimism is well founded, but I suspect Birns' caution about the "evaporation of existing commitments" may have more precedence in hemispheric affairs.

But to close on a hopeful note, here's a video of U.S. marines in Haiti (courtesy of YouTube, via John Brown's Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review), showing our tax dollars at work.

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