Opinion: Haiti's cycle of disaster

NEW YORK — Haiti's devastating earthquake, which virtually destroyed the U.N.'s peacekeeping mission there, will undoubtedly make things harder for the poorest, most embattled nation in the Western Hemisphere.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission, which has for the last five years worked to bring political stability to the country following the 2004 armed uprising against Haiti's President Jean Bertrande Aristide, reports many of its personnel missing and presumed dead along with tens of thousands of others in the virtually destroyed capital Port-au-Prince, a city that used to house about 2 million people.

The rescue operation to unearth, house, feed, treat and, in too many cases, bury the victims will likely take months and is mobilizing the international community in ways unseen since the 2004 tsunami in Asia. Indeed, this earthquake could turn out to be the deadliest natural disaster since that tsunami.

But Haiti seems to be in a never-ending cycle of disasters, both natural and man-made. The island was hammered by four hurricanes in 2009 that killed more than 800 people and now it has been rocked by its worst earthquake in 200 years. These disasters have badly damaged the country's already ailing infrastructure. Haiti's unsustainable farming and deforesting has led to an environmental nightmare of increased flooding and soil erosion. In 2008, Haitians, no strangers to hunger and poverty, rioted when food prices increased by more than 50 percent.

And although there's been relative political calm in the last few years under President Rene Preval, Haiti still faces issues of governance. In October 2009, Michele Pierre-Louis was ousted from her post as prime minister for failing to do enough to alleviate the poverty that plagues the country. "The unceremonious dumping of the prime minister revived memories of Haiti’s recent past, in which in-fighting among grasping politicians denied it both government and foreign aid," wrote The Economist of the political move. Her predecessor was ousted the year before in the wake of the food crisis.

In 1990, Jean Bertrande Aristide became the first democratically-elected president after decades of dictatorship and he was supposed to mark a new chapter in the tumultuous country's history. Instead his rule ended in bloody turmoil 15 years later.

Despite continuous international support, Haiti's development has remained both slow and tenuous. Nearly 80 percent of the population continues to live on less than $2 per day, more than half live on less than a dollar a day. A 2009 Columbia University U.N. Studies report notes that after 20 years of U.N. involvement and more than $5 billion in assistance in foreign assistance from the United States, "the country still suffers from extreme poverty, severe environmental degradation, unpredictable bursts of violence and the near absence of government at all levels of society." The Columbia University report notes that the core of Haiti's fragility is the people's lack of trust that the government will be able to provide for their basic needs.

Some worry that donor fatigue is setting in. In 2009, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, appointed U.N. special envoy to Haiti, made a significant effort to refocus attention on Haiti's development needs at time when international donor aid to the country has been tapering off in the midst of the global financial crisis. And Haiti's cycle of disasters is siphoning off money that could go to help development.

International Reporting Project (IRP) Fellow Ruxandra Guidi describes the phenomenon this way: "So much of the money coming into Haiti is slated for varying degrees of emergencies and issues that are affecting the country: food security, lack of water or hurricane relief."

There is cause to wonder how long Haiti will remain stable without the continued presence of some 9,000 U.N. Peacekeepers — and those fears could grow now that Haiti's U.N. headquarters lie under the rubble.

President Preval promised free and fair legislative and presidential elections, which had been set for February. Hedi Annabi, head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission — among the earthquake's casualties — said just a few days before the earthquake that the country's development hinged on a peaceful election process. But even if everything was in place for fair elections in February, the prospect of them looks unlikely since so many of the country's institutions have been damaged and so much infrastructure has been destroyed by the earthquake. The question for Haiti's political future is: "Now what?"

Haiti needs a lot things, economic stability and growth, good governance, less crime, more education, private investment, better infrastructure, sustainable environmental management and, obviously, less natural disasters. But while it is difficult to prevent natural disasters, it also seems hard to prevent the man-made ones without more buy-in from Haitians.

An unemployed Haitian told IRP's Guidi in 2008, "Everyone has a plan for my country, except us Haitians."

Undoubtedly, this current earthquake disaster will lead to another flurry of international donor support. But Edward Luck, director of studies for the International Peace Institute, said in an interview with CFR.org following the earthquake, Haiti's problems must ultimately be solved by Haitians and Haitian institutions.

"In the long run, what matters is whether the institutions are created, whether there's some confidence that people have in the government, whether corruption is addressed, whether lawlessness on the island is addressed," Luck says. "If the pieces are in place and the people have some sense of hope, some sense of confidence in the government and the international community, then people can overcome these kinds of tragedies."

As Luck points out, there were signs prior to last year's storms that Haiti was finally making headway on jobs, poverty, crime, private investment and governance. But these gains are fragile and this week the country looks the most desperate it has ever been.

Toni Johnson is a staff writer for the web site of the Council on Foreign Relations, where she writes news analysis and backgrounders on religion, energy/environment and global health. The views expressed here are her own.