HAITI: Aftershock

Less than nine months after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, international aid and media interest is vanishing

  • By Andrea Armeni
  • 08 Oct 2010
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Look closely for progress in post-earthquake Haiti, and some evidence of it may pop up here and there. The road from the airport to the capital is no longer an obstacle course of debris. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) has been established as the overarching reconstruction organization. It has even found an executive director and held two meetings. Donor funds, long awaited, have started flowing in.

But beyond that, there is little to show for the initial push to rebuild the battered country.

The outpouring of support and human interest that followed the early post-earthquake months has fizzled out, and with that some of the donor eagerness to make good on early pledges. Most of those displaced are still living in makeshift camps, with little immediate prospects of the situation changing. Only a fraction of the temporary housing has been built. Corruption is rampant, especially in the area of customs.

Not nearly enough has happened in the eight months since the disaster. But there are some positive signs, says Corinne Delechat, mission chief of the IMF in Haiti. While progress so far has been slow, she tells Emerging Markets, “[reconstruction plans are] finally taking shape, and things are slowly getting off the ground.”

But if anything, says Paul Weisenfeld, head of USAID’s Haiti Task Force, the little progress underscores the tremendous amount of work that lies ahead. To top it off, a looming election – necessary as it is – is distracting many players from the reconstruction task at hand.

Even if reconstruction were to be achieved swiftly, it still wouldn’t be enough. Unlike Chile – an admittedly unfair comparison – Haiti is a country that cannot just go back to where it was the day before the earthquake. It is a country that requires a complete redesign.

“You cannot simply talk about recovery, or rebuilding, or building back,” says Nigel Fisher, deputy special representative of the UN secretary-general in Haiti. “This natural disaster happened to a country that was structurally totally dysfunctional, where most people lived in poverty, where governance was poor, where the economy was puttering along.”

Haiti’s poor shape before the earthquake compounds its limited ability to rebuild and grow. The rebuilding and redeveloping process itself, says Joe Leitman, programme director of the Haiti Reconstruction Fund, suffers from the fact that Haiti’s government “was not very strong to begin with”.

Haiti’s issues are not limited to the possible slow start over the first few months. The timeline for the redevelopment of Haiti has to be measured in decades, according to international observers. In this sense, a slower start could mean advantages down the road: more care has certainly been placed in trying to strike a balance between international assistance and the self-determination of the Haitian government.

Still, this has been bought at a cost. “Everyone wants to see this opportunity being used to help create a modern state in Haiti – one that is properly governed, that is responsive to its citizens and that has the capacity to provide services. However, people want to see progress in the short term, and that implies investing in the existing capacity to deliver, and often that is outside the government,” says Leitman.

“It’s a challenge to walk that tightrope and to figure out how to move forward in a way that builds national capacity, but that also ensures that children are in school, farmers can plant their crops, jobs are generated, roads are rebuilt and debris is cleared.”

The slow trickle of donor funds has been one of the factors in the slowness of the reconstruction. While the IMF itself has fulfilled its commitments, Delechat agrees that overall “what the donors have delivered, is still very much below what was expected”.

The World Bank and the IDB are also on schedule with their commitments, while the HRF – the multi-donor fund – has seen only a fraction of the expected funding. As Leitman, the HRF director, tells Emerging Markets, “billions of dollars were talked about, but only 10% to maybe 20% of that has actually materialized. So there are fewer resources to get the reconstruction job done as well.”

It is always a challenge, says Fisher, for pledges to materialize, because commitments are made and new crises come up and potentially divert the money. “I don’t want to be pessimistic at this stage,” he says, but he believes that full financing “will require quality projects and programmes with a global management of finances, and where results can be assessed and there is transparency”.


Other challenges face Haiti. Corruption and lack of transparency, despite being addressed by the authorities, are still rampant. “We have seen people attempt to continue business as usual with corrupt practices,” says Leitman. “Anyone who says that there’s going to be a corruption-free recovery is kidding themselves. Corruption has been there for a long time and continues to be part of the landscape.”

Land tenure is another long-standing problem that has turned into an obstacle to humanitarian relief and to economic investment. Haiti lacks effective land legislation, and until issues of ownership are clarified, it will be hard to see progress in the resettlement of people or the establishment of industrial zones.

This, in turn, is unlikely to happen given the looming presidential elections, scheduled for November. While the timing of the elections might be a challenge for the reconstruction effort, there is a broad consensus that they are necessary and must be helped along. “With no effective parliament, it is difficult for some people to see that legitimate decisions are being made,” says Leitman.

The election is likely to affect the rebuilding momentum in several ways. One problem is the inherent political destabilization. “We do know from past experience that the run-up to the elections could be an unstable period, as different groups try to manipulate the situation,” says Fisher.

The elections are detracting already from the focus on what needs to be happening. “So,” says Leitman, “as we get closer to the elections, many issues, many decisions get politicized, and there’s a tendency to look around, to find people to blame for why things haven’t gone as well or as quickly as was expected. Energy is expended in finding scapegoats instead of in solving problems.”

But because the IHRC is not technically a government entity, the overall reconstruction effort should not grind to a halt, and the commission, says Delechat, should provide some continuity irrespective of the change in government.

The IHRC, on which so many hopes rest, is a target for widespread criticism. Yet, while it has been slow in deploying, as most officials on the ground agree, it does provide coordination among the various major players. It also plays a role in promoting “mutual transparency and accountability between Haiti and the international community,” as Fisher puts it.

That said, the IHRC is a mystery to most. Its phones don’t work. Nor do its email accounts. And its website is only infrequently updated.

This situation runs the risk of the main NGOs – yet again – bypassing governmental and official channels, in the kind of uncoordinated activity that typified the structurally unsound Haiti that existed before the earthquake. This new wave of foreign cooperation must be accountable in a way it was not before, and for that to happen, the international community must find a credible interlocutor at some level among the Haitian institutions.


Much as the international community’s contribution will be vital for years to come, there is no question that the only way to ensure Haiti’s sustained growth is through a high level of investment. “The key to our success in this strategy will depend on how much they will be able to attract the private sector and private investment,” says Delechat. That attraction will depend, in turn, on the creation of a suitable business environment, a civil registry, a land registry, and a workable justice system.

“Of course there are some difficulties,” says Alexandre Abrantes, special envoy for the World Bank and a member of the IHRC board of directors. “The country has problems in transport infrastructure. Roads, electricity, harbours, the airport – all of that needs a lot of investment for the full opportunities to materialize.”

Investment is starting to flow. Some foreign entities have already started to take advantage of the Haitian Economic Lift Program (HELP) Act, which provides favourable US market access for Haitian apparel exports.

The Inter-American Development Bank is working to boost private capital. Agustín Aguerre, IDB Haiti response group manager, says there is “tremendous interest” in textile investment. This September an agreement was signed with a South Korean clothing manufacturer to build garment factories that will employ 10,000 people.

One of the IMF’s chief contributions is setting up a partial credit guarantee fund to restart credit. This should also help the small entrepreneurs, who are widely regarded as being the most directly affected by the earthquake and who had already had difficulty accessing credit.

  • By Andrea Armeni
  • 08 Oct 2010

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