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HAITI: Stability May Rest in Donors’ Pockets

Marina Litvinsky

WASHINGTON, Mar 4 2009 (IPS) - A series of crises in 2008 have pushed more Haitians into poverty and increased the potential for serious instability in the Caribbean nation of nearly 9 million, said the latest update briefing from the International Crisis Group (ICG).

The briefing, “Haiti 2009: Stability at Risk”, points to the global financial crisis as exacerbating an already dire situation. Violent riots against high living costs in April, and tropical storms and hurricanes in August and September, which killed 800, affected nearly one million people, exacerbated food shortages, and pushed more Haitians into poverty.

The financial crisis has made it difficult for donor countries and organisations to meet commitments and has reduced diaspora remittances.

“The socio-economic situation is worse than at the time of the April 2008 riots and the fall of the [former Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard] Alexis government,” said Bernice Robertson, ICG’s senior Haiti analyst. “President René Préval and Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis need to secure the support of donors and parliament to swiftly implement a wide-ranging stabilisation strategy or risk renewed political instability and violence.”

When Préval and Alexis took office on May 14 and Jun. 6, 2006, respectively, many believed it was a genuine opportunity to make headway on reestablishing and expanding security, reforming the police and judiciary, implementing macroeconomic stabilisation measures and controlling corruption.

However, their government failed to consolidate the success in controlling the gangs in key urban slums by following through on the rapid provision of basic services in those neighbourhoods. The macroeconomic gains recorded since mid-2006 also did not translate into large-scale visible improvements for the poor before the devastating 2008 storms made the situation worse.

The April 2008 riots over rising food prices toppled the government of Alexis and, five months later, Pierre-Louis took office. On Dec. 2, Pierre-Louis presented a roadmap of planned government action.

The prime minister’s sector plan for fiscal year 2008-2009 offered a strategy to stimulate national economic growth and reduce poverty. Since then, the government has been increasingly criticised for lack of leadership on storm recovery efforts in the field and a lack of innovation in its strategies, according to the ICG briefing.

The briefing points to an urgent need for broad political consensus and improved relations between the executive and legislative branches of government.

In the current cabinet, only the public health and environment ministers, Alex Larsen and Jean-Marie Claude Germain, respectively, are associated with parties other than the ruling Lespwa grouping. A scheduled 2009 election will make it even more difficult for the president and his prime minister to build political consensus and mobilise broad national support for stabilisation measures.

The budget proposed by the executive – 256.4 million dollars, with 60 percent to be financed by donors – is currently blocked in parliament, where both chambers have asked for revisions.

The ICG briefing also calls for a government-donor-civil society partnership to kick-start a community-oriented reconstruction process. This includes building a social safety net for hurricane victims and jobs-oriented infrastructure projects that prioritise areas hard-hit by the floods. The plan aims to boost agriculture and enhance a longer-term poverty reduction and economic growth strategy.

The immediate focus should include: identifying government-led, community-approved, high-impact and high-visibility projects to tackle key challenges such as job-creation and food shortages; boosting security sector reform by speedily completing actions planned and begun in 2008 to control porous borders and corrupt and inefficient ports; working closer with parliament and improving transparency in handling emergency funds and carrying out reconstruction; and strengthening democratic institutions and stabilisation efforts by holding inclusive elections in 2009 with national and international observers.

In early February, Préval acknowledged his country’s fragile situation when he asked for economic assistance from the U.S., Haiti’s biggest aid donor, in a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“I believe we are at a very serious turning point,” he told the Washington Post in an interview. “We can either win or lose.”

A State Department official said Clinton told Préval she would consider his request but could make no promises.

Donations in response to storm devastation came in slowly with donors citing the global financial crisis for their inability to raise funds.

“The international community has not responded in any way near the manner that would be called for given the magnitude of damage last summer,” Mark Schneider, senior vice president of ICG, told IPS.

Schneider points to donor fatigue as the cause of their reluctance to give more aid.

“There has been a significant amount of investment, and the donors see some of their programmes not moving as fast as they like,” he said.

With the postponed donors conference set for April 2009, it remains to be seen what kind of a commitment the new U.S. administration of Pres. Barack Obama will make to Haiti.

“The April 2009 donors conference is important since it will largely determine whether the government can meet the expectations of the country’s poor and avoid further unrest,” warned Markus Schultze-Kraft, ICG’s Latin America programme director. “Senate elections in April and the constitutional reform debate shortly after will set the political tone for reconstruction and development efforts during the remainder of the year.”

Schneider adds that the “government has a legitimate plan (for reconstruction) that should be the basis for aid support,” but the lives of Haitians rest on the need for donor aid.

“Aid has to come now,” he said. “The international community cannot simply wait.”

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