As a leading reporter and Executive Editor at Radio Haïti Inter until 1980, Arold Isaac, Sr. had the opportunity to travel to all corners of Haiti and see the people at work. Exiled, he started a new life in Canada. After university studies in the sciences, he has led a career in industrial management in Quebec for 25 years. Following the disastrous earthquake that struck in the vicinity of Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, Mr. Isaac lends his voice to the examination of the deep roots of Haiti's problems and of the equally deep solutions that are called for. He writes as a concerned observer and as a Haitian. Thomas Kielczewski
When will we finally get it?
By Arold Isaac Sr.
(Translated from French by Thomas Kielczewski)
The hour of reckoning
The hardship that seems to stalk Haiti has just delivered an unusually violent blow. Horror has reached a climax. Even if the catastrophe administered the knockout punch, it caught us in full distress, for we had already hit rock bottom. When the earth cracked and opened under us on January 12, 2010, our decrepitude was an extremely unfortunate factor, for, cruel irony, on the day Haiti sustained a blow to the head, none of the regions spared by the quake were able to come to its rescue. When the reconstruction occurs, will the backwaters once again be left to their own devices? In the hour of reckoning, as we heal our wounds, we must brave our demons and show our real hand. It's now or never.
Throughout our two hundred years as a nation, we have always had our social, political, economic, and diplomatic problems. This is the fate of poor countries and we were poor indeed. But none of that compares to the events of the last few years. Our true decline began only forty years ago. How did we get to this point?
An unprecedented problem
What we have experienced in the past half-century is unprecedented in the history of Haiti and is on a wholly different scale from past tribulations. For the nature of our tragedy is primarily economic and financial; whatever you do, please do not summon history, geography, or superstition.
About halfway through the 1960s, a break occurred in the historical fabric: a new parasitic economic creation was born, and with it, a flesh-eating canker. Nothing would ever be the same. The phenomenon saw astonishing growth in the 1970s, and peaked in the 1980s.
The change was insidious but dramatic. Those of you who were around back then, please, reach back in your memories. Look at the early 1970s, then at the late 1990s. Notice the deterioration of schools, hospitals, electrical grid, water distribution system, and agricultural commodities. Notice the blistering growth of chaotic suburbs, of the "borlettes" (lottery), of "Miami rice," and of "schools of convenience." In roughly twenty years, the few things that still allowed us to call ourselves a country had disappeared. By way of an explanation, some will talk of "bad luck"; others, less desirably, will concoct a pact with the devil. When we are at a loss for words, even for what to do, rational thought gives way to off-the-wall, mystical, or downright racist flights of fancy. Do you really think that after two hundred years, history, geography, or the Vodou ceremony at Bois Caiman would suddenly clamor for their due?
Rather, the real cause of this decline was this new parasitic economic creation. It was a blight that gobbled up all that it came in contact with. It literally cannibalized anything resembling a real economy. We had been a poor country. Since then, whether we like to admit it or not, we have become nothing more than a gigantic "beggars' court," a vast, lawless zone where crooks and anarchy reign supreme.
It is not our political institutions that undermine the economy; it is our economic system that undermines our politics.
An engineless economy
Our socioeconomic system is like a truck without an engine. Push it and it inches forward; let it go and it rolls back.
• It doesn't need a functioning fiscal system. Government officially relies on international aid for its budgetary viability (World Factbook, CIA).
• Neither does it require an effective system of mass education. Two out of three educated Haitians live abroad (OCDE 2006), and Haiti's educational system is an empty shell.
• As its ultimate paradox, it doesn't even need to create jobs to function; more than two-thirds of the population is not officially employed (World Factbook, CIA).
The system is on life support and produces nothing. It's being kept alive artificially by intravenous injection. When will we understand that we are misguided in our approach to the question of Haiti? When will we finally get it?
Commentators and donors lose themselves in speculation to explain their repeated failures with this patient whose throes grow more heartbreaking by the day and yet who refuses to die. Despite all the partnerships, pledges, and the hundreds of millions invested, the haitian malady grows in exponential fashion. Nothing seems to check its progression.
An American Treasury Department expert (J.B. Taylor, 2003), testifying before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, once declared that "years of economic mismanagement, political instability, and weak rule of law have produced this tragedy." The tragedy he mentions is an assessment of the disastrous record of several years of financial and technical assistance to Haiti.
Curiously, he doesn't have any difficulty in assigning a cause of this "tragedy." Why have the treatments applied so far always been worse than the disease? According to our expert, we don't have to look very far: it's the political climate that hinders foreign aid. Which only goes to show how convenient it is to be both judge and jury!
Those are the words of an American official, but we both know that they could have come from a Canadian, a German, a Haitian, or anyone else. The reality he describes is undeniably tragic. But the real tragedy is not in his assessment; it's in the conclusion he draws: that the political environment is the cause of the problem and an obstacle to the solution. This is usually acknowledged in even the friendliest of circles.
To its credit, this conclusion at least steers clear of the nonsensical hogwash spouted by believers in the supernatural. Still, this explanation is handiest to those who have chosen not to care. For like many of us, they apparently mistook the effect for the cause and the cause for the effect. Whereas this is not the natural order of things. If politics is the roof of a house, the economy is the foundation. To claim that the foundation is not finished purely because there's something wrong with the roof is sheer madness.
In life, prejudice often keeps hurting those whom it targets. This distorting prism has always guided all forms of assistance to Haiti, and still does. How can we be so hopelessly blind, so stubborn in our misconception? How many failures will we need in order to understand? Can we at least try to look at the problem from a different angle?
The water analogy
Before we peek inside this infernal mechanism, let's make an analogy between the water cycle and what economists call the flow of capital. The rain that falls on a verdant, tree-covered mountain percolates through the soil, feeds the water table and streams, which in turn irrigate a rich and fertile valley. Water, when treated this way, is a source of life.
By contrast, the same rain, falling on a mountain that has been stripped bare, remains at the surface, rushes down the slope, floods the valley, and buries it under silt and mud. Water, thus treated, is a calamity. In both cases, the same water fell from the sky. What can turn something life-giving into something calamitous? Nothing more than the way in which it is soaked up, digested, and assimilated. The same holds true for the inflows of capital in an economy.
A closer look
In the 1960s, if we recall, a new dynamic emerged in the geopolitical context of anticommunism, one of the key principles being the deliberate neglect of the countryside and the establishment of a "centralized republic of Port-au-Prince." All of this occurred against a background of intensifying international aid. Political terror prompted a brain drain, while increasing poverty translated into a steady drain from the workforce. At one point, in the 1970s, save for a tiny minority, there were but two categories of Haitians: those who had already left and those who hoped to leave. All hopes became focused abroad, the source of all the precious cash sent home by political and economic exiles. The exodus snowballed, right down to the "boat people." The mechanism was careening out of control. It would never stop.
An immediate consequence of this new model were massive inflows of fresh, interest-free capital, which would reach up to 25% of GDP (J.B. Taylor, 2003). In 2002, remittances by the diaspora were flirting with the $US1 billion mark, while at the same time foreign aid was leveling off at $US 150 million. In 2006, remittances rose to $US 1.65 billion (Inter-American Development Bank, 2007). Imagine the impact of this phenomenon on such a small economy!
A poisoned gift
"Only gradually, did it come to be recognized that it was not just the scale of remittances, but also the way in which they are used that is of crucial significance for the economies of the migrants' home countries". (Thomas Straubhaar, INTERECONOMICS, March/April 1985)
At first, everyone was relieved, euphoric, and entranced by this manna from heaven falling onto a destitute population. Who would have dared question the long-term effects? What wasn't understood (and still isn't) is that this sky-borne bonanza was toxic under the circumstances. Coming from international money lenders and from the diaspora, this growing and continuous cashflow would corrupt the economy and tip it into the pernicious spiral.
Furthermore, all this buying power, which the local production couldn't even begin to absorb, was going directly toward boosting imports, not only of manufactured good, but also of agricultural products: US$500 million in exports in 2008, against US$2 billion in imports (World Factbook, CIA). Even worse, some local industries that had managed to stay afloat were crippled overnight and washed away by this tide. No one wanted to be seen wearing locally produced articles amidst the "made in USA" wave.
This inflow of capital did not mechanize the labor of the craftsman tailor or woodworker; it wiped out their industries entirely to the sole benefit of imports. Let's recall how we became net importers of rice. This had an instant disincentivizing effect: middle school kids would drop out massively and wait three or four years for the magical visa of freedom beckoning them to "New York"; those who didn't dare drop out found cover in "schools of convenience" to dupe their absentee parents. At any rate, what was the draw of earning a diploma when the economy couldn't care less, and Florida was so near?
Everything seemed to flow toward one common goal: to smother local industry and reinforce this passive cycle of dependence. Around this time, some efforts were made at industrialization (through subcontracting), which attracted even more foreign currency without producing anything for the local market, thus adding to the problem. Finally, drug trafficking put the last nail in the coffin.
Targeting the root of the problem
Note that the idea is not to remove, or even to shrink, foreign remittances or foreign aid. Remember the water analogy. A problem must be understood in order to transform it and turn it to our advantage. We must change the process of assimilating capital and thus change it from a calamity into a source of life. Any initiative that ignores this singular and important fact is doomed to failure, and for good reason.
Once upon a time, the saying was,"ANYTHING but Duvalier!". If politics, or any form of government were the cause of our fall from grace, then the end of the dictatorship should have led to an improvement, or at least should have stopped the fall. Instead, we got a "dance of generals" and things started going to hell in a handbasket. To enlist luck to our cause, our rallying cry became, "ANYTHING but the Army!". Only once the Army was disbanded, our fall, far from slowing down, became dizzying. Weary and cynical, our chant then became "ANYTHING but Aristide!". Hardly slowed, our gallop toward hell then became a stampede: we had reached rock bottom! Or so we thought, until the final blow of January 12, 2010, which proved that there is a place worse than hell. Like the Hydra of mythology, every head lopped off sprouts two new ones; the beast continues to exhale its foul and murderous breath. Meanwhile, we are still plodding along the same path, one failure after another, convinced that the solution lies first and foremost in the overhaul of our political institutions and in the cleanup of our morals. Are we not allowed to wonder whether we simply aren't on the right track?
An engine for the economy
The solution will inevitably involve the emergence of a class of agricultural and industrial producers whose interests will coincide with those of the community. We will need agricultural and industrial products, handicrafts, and cultural products of local execution and for local consumption in order to transform foreign cash into lasting wealth. To achieve this, we will need to incentivize, facilitate, and support the creation of a critical mass of local producers of all sizes, in every field, and in all regions. We will need to woo not only foreigners, but Haitians as well. Granted, we do not have a robust entrepreneurial culture, but this shouldn't stop us! How many Haitians squandered their hard-earned savings abroad to build a house in Haiti that they frequently cannot even occupy? They will have to be encouraged to invest in agricultural and industrial production.
It seems ironic that while venture capital and credit are often the hardest to secure for stimulating entrepreneurship, these things are precisely what foreign cash could offer us on a silver platter, year after year. A country where everything remains to be done is a paradise for businesspeople, and unfortunately for wheelers and dealers and robber barons as well. Thus, we will need to accompany new entrepreneurs in their first steps, supervise them, educate them if need be, and most of all, protect them from themselves and from hostile elements and stubborn, backward-looking defenders of the status quo. This solution will not be implemented seamlessly, for the current system, as it is, is too lucrative a target for theft and "war profiteering." The perpetrators will not sit quietly on the sidelines and watch the dismantlement of their old stomping grounds. We will need to convince the less hostile ones that there are other ways to profit than through corruption, monopolies, or plunder. Above all, we can't afford to become discouraged!
This is the real engine of change that will break the old vicious circle and launch the virtuous one. This new national movement will learn how to pay for its roads, its bridges, its skilled workers, its schools, its legal framework, and its bank credit simply because it will need all these things, because they will be inseparable from its success. At that moment, the politico-legal edifice will start playing its facilitating and regulatory role.
Only after we set this process in motion will we be able to turn our attention to reforming social and political attitudes.
Arold Isaac, Sr.
Montreal, January 18, 2010