Haiti's State-Building Challenge

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

SANTO DOMINGO: The $5 billion in short-term aid for Haiti, and the $10 billion pledged for its long-term reconstruction at the International Donors’ Conference on March 31, is a vote of confidence in the potential of collective international action. The question, however, is not only one of money; it is about whether Haiti’s agony is to be addressed as just one more humanitarian crisis or as a structural problem of state building — a long-term quest for institutional stability and sustainable development.

Conspicuously, Haiti’s Dominican neighbors were the first to gauge the magnitude of the problem and the global nature of the required solution. The Dominican government’s decision to hold a summit on Haiti’s future has the objective of securing the international community’s ongoing commitment to Haiti, beyond the generous response to the catastrophe produced by the earthquake in January.

In addition to harmonizing the flow of donations and an agreed-upon list of development projects, Dominican President Leonel Fernandez seeks to make clear that the task is a long-term enterprise: re-founding the failing Haitian state. A believer in the essentially political nature of Haiti’s tragedy, Fernandez rightly aspires to turn the current crisis into the lever for state-building, Haiti’s extraction from political isolation, and its maturation into an active member of the regional and world community.

It is to be hoped that the current global economic crisis does not undermine the reliability of the world’s commitments to Haiti. After all, even in times of prosperity, the international community has been notorious for making grand pledges, only to renege when it comes to following through with the money.

Keeping alive the international community’s commitment — that is, seeking an international solution to Haiti’s tragedy — is a vital necessity for the Dominicans. Their initiative is essentially driven by the fear that once Haiti’s immediate humanitarian crisis is addressed, the country’s underlying problems could be left at the door of the “prosperous” neighbors across the border.

A case like the island of La Española (Hispaniola), where a simple border can reflect such vast differences, is not very common. On one side of the border is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, a place where 56 percent of the population survives on less than one dollar a day. On the other side of the island stands a stable democracy with a promising outlook for a reasonably prosperous future. For Dominicans, helping Haiti develop and become politically stable is the best way to safeguard their own stability.

That was also the logic of the Barcelona Process in the late 1990s, whereby the European Union worked to promote the development and democratization of the countries of the Maghreb as the best way to stem the uncontrolled tide of illegal immigration into Europe. But, unlike the EU, the Dominican Republic is not an economic giant that can assume exclusive responsibility for extracting Haiti from its Biblical destitution.

The Dominicans are right to seek at least a more solid regional commitment. The Haitian refugee crisis in the early 1990s tragically showed that no country in the region — including the United States, which either repatriated most illegal immigrants or confined them to the hardship of open camps in Guantánamo Bay — was ready to absorb the Haitians who fled their politically torn country.

So long as the Haitian state remains fragile and the Haitian economy continues to decompose, the network of mafias living on illegal immigration into the Dominican Republic will continue to flourish. About one million Haitians now live in the Dominican Republic, but only about 10 percent of the Haitian laborers in the country are there legally, a condition that invites their exploitation by greedy employers. Cheap Haitian labor has become a substitute for less-skilled Dominican labor in a way that increases income inequalities, and puts a special burden on the country’s public finances and services, owing to lower tax revenues.

Though the Dominican Republic suffers from its own social and economic maladies — it is itself an exporter of emigrants to the US, Puerto Rico, and Spain — it certainly has a role to play in Haiti’s reconstruction. But it must supersede the exclusivist attitudes held by many members of its political class, particularly given that much of its economic growth in recent years reflects the contribution of Haitian immigration.

The two countries are condemned by history and geography to develop civilized neighborly relations. Haitians should not be encouraged to seek a solution to their tragic plight simply by crossing the border, but Dominicans should not demonize Haiti as the source of all their problems. Both sides need to engage in the vital enterprise of turning the border that separates them into a benign space of transnational development and stability.

Precisely because developing a mutually beneficial border regime is, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly remarked in her 2009 visit to the island, a task that affects the two countries’ stability and well-being, it also needs to be part of the current international reconstruction effort. But Clinton should be reminded that every free industrial zone that was built along the Israeli-Palestinian border eventually fell victim to political instability. Haiti’s transition to effective and sustainable statehood is therefore also vital for establishing a prosperous border regime.

Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as Vice President of the Toledo International Centre for Peace, is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.

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