Six Months Later, Haiti Foresees a Long Road to Recovery

Jonathan Berr
Haiti Earthquake: Six Months Later
Haiti Earthquake: Six Months Later

How long will it take Haiti to recover from the devastating earthquake that killed 330,000 people six months ago? At least 20 years, according to the impoverished island nation's government.

And the Haitian government's definition of recovery is modest, as laid out in its Action Plan for the reconstruction: "The period (10 years) during which the reconstruction and recovery of Haiti will become a reality, in order to put the country back on the road to development, followed by another 10 years to make it a real emerging country."

What's meant by a "real emerging country" is tough to say. As theFinancial Times noted, only about 120,000 of Haiti's 9 million people work in the formal economy. Reginald Bolous, the president of Haiti's Chamber of Commerce, tells the publication that 1 million jobs can be created in 10 years, implying annual growth of 10%. That will "put Haiti on the road to becoming a developing country -- because right now we are not even that," he says.

Meanwhile, the pace of reconstruction from the Jan. 12 earthquake drags on. Further constraining the effort are the upcoming Haitian elections and deep-rooted corruption problems that have strangled economic growth for years. These things frustrate observers such as Maarten Boute, the head of Digicell Haiti, the local division of the Caribbean's dominant wireless provider, and James Morrell, the head of the Haiti Democracy Project.

"It's gone too slowly," says Boute, whose company is the largest in Haiti, in an interview. "The reason is that there is no coordination at all. There has not been a master plan ... as to what has to be done here."

Morrell, a long-time critic of the Haitian government, blames the current administration in Port-au-Prince for the recovery's slow pace.

"The Haitian government has done nothing," he says. "They are simply incapable."

The Price to Rebuild: Around $11.5 Billion

Even before the earthquake most Haitians lived miserable existences. Its rates of disease were high because the country spends the least per capita on heath care in the Western Hemisphere. Its education system also was inadequate. The economy, which was heavily dependent on remittances from the Haitian Diaspora, has been stagnant for years, and the country ranked 149th of 182 countries in the U.N.'s Human Development Index. Haiti's literacy rate is 39.2% and 22% of children under the age of 5 are underweight, according to the U.N.

"As the nation begins to rebuild and reconstruct, the fundamentals for a new, decentralized economy need to be established, both to provide more economic opportunity for Haitians, and to ease the overcrowding of Port-au-Prince that contributed to the magnitude of the disaster," said a report presented to the Haitian government by the Private Sector Economic Forum, a group of local and international investors of which Bolous is a member.

The Inter-American Bank estimated in February the cost to rebuild Haiti would be between $8 billion and $13.9 billion. A month later, the United Nations pegged the figure at $11.5 billion. Both those estimates, which were preliminary and based on the best information available amid a rapidly changing situation, were probably optimistic -- though it's impossible at this point to know by how much.

One of the major challenges right now is housing. The Jan. 12 temblor destroyed approximately 105,000 homes, plus 50 hospitals and health centers, the Presidential Palace, the main airport, parliament, law courts, and most ministerial and public administration buildings. Engineers are currently inspecting tens of thousands of buildings that are still standing to determine which ones are safe. Only 2% of the estimated 20 million tons of debris created by the earthquake has been removed, according to media reports.

"Moving Haitians out of camps and overcrowded dwellings into safe homes is one of our highest priorities, particularly since we are in the hurricane season," said John Sanbrailo, executive director of the Pan American Development Fund, in a press release. "Haitians are understandably afraid to return to buildings that may collapse. These inspections will give them the certainty they need."

Blighted by a Legacy of Corruption

The enormity of the earthquake's devastation sometimes is hard to comprehend.

About 15% of the nation's population was directly affected by the disaster. In a strictly economic sense, it caused damages and losses of $7.9 billion, equal to more than 120% of the country's 2009 GDP. So far, only about 10% of the $5.3 billion pledged by international donors after the disaster has been received. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who co-chairs an international commission overseeing the aid, is twisting arms to get more funds, and to get them sooner. "We need a schedule at least from the donors of when they are going to give that money," Clinton told the Associated Press.

The Haitian authorities have high hopes for their country's future, saying that by 2030, the Caribbean nation will be a " fair, just, united and friendly society." Haiti does have reserves of liquefied natural gas that are underdeveloped. Its pool of cheap labor makes it attractive for the apparel industry, especially given its proximity to the U.S. Likewise, increased tourism also is possible. Many foreign companies, though, have long avoided Haiti because of its rampant corruption.

Boute has seen that corruption firsthand since Digicell launched its Haiti operations in 2006. The company has invested $376 million in Haiti, and plans to add spend another $60 million there in the current fiscal year.

"We were confronted with it at some stages," he says. "If you refuse to accept it, you can get by."

In April, Digicell was outbid for a 60% stake in a new telecom company by Viettell, the largest wireless company in Vietnam. The firm is owned by the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense. It has agreed to invest $99 million in Haiti, the largest investment since the earthquake.

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