Is there hope for HAITI?

Published: Sunday | April 28, 2013 Comments 0
A woman with a headless chicken in a voodoo ceremony in 1975.-CONTRIBUTED
A woman with a headless chicken in a voodoo ceremony in 1975.-CONTRIBUTED
Brian Samuel
Brian Samuel

S. Brian Samuel, Guest Columnist

The first time I went to Haiti was in 1975, as a bright-eyed university student from Jamaica. I went with a group of art students (I was economics), and we stayed in a cheap B&B in downtown Port-au-Prince. We went to countless galleries, danced to the infectious meringue rhythms in street cafés, went to a voodoo ceremony and ate poulet de montagne, a delicious stew containing some of the strangest-looking 'chicken' bones I'd ever seen - I loved it!

I was enthralled at the vibrant culture; but at the same time appalled by the extreme poverty I saw in Port-au-Prince daily: women washing babies in the gutter; flies and filth intermingled with food. In Jamaica, we had poverty, terrible poverty in Kingston's ghettos; but nothing like this.

The next time I went to Haiti was 20 years later, in 1994-95, when I was working with the World Bank, trying to help rebuild Haiti's shattered economy after decades of dictatorial misrule. In 1975, Haiti was poor, but at least it was vibrant, you could feel the energy. By 1995, not only was Haiti poorer, worse yet, it was depressing.

In 1995, Haiti had a per capita gross national income of US$269 per annum (source: World Bank), less than the price of the proverbial good dinner in Paris (haven to many of Haiti's fleeing ex-dictators, such as the odious 'Baby Doc' Duvalier). Repeat: This is average income per year - the scale of poverty is hard to comprehend. How do people live?

Long gone were the vibrancy and optimism I had experienced in 1975; after two more decades of grinding poverty and dictatorial excess, any remaining optimism in Haiti had been replaced by a sense of physical, mental and spiritual weariness, a loss of hope.

DILAPIDATED MILL

I was part of a World Bank team trying to privatise a raft of government enterprises; I drew the short straw and got the flour mill. Correction: the derelict, dilapidated, rotting hulk of what used to be a flour mill. Ten years to be exact.

Haiti's flour mill, La Minoterie d'Haiti, had always been owned by the government; and had always been profitable. In fact, it was too profitable; and had been plundered for decades by succeeding kleptocratic regimes in Haiti. One day the cash cow ground to a halt - literally. The flour mill was just left there, full of half-milled wheat and other discarded waste products, left to the rot and the rats. Ten years on, and I'm supposed to privatise this ecological disaster zone? I wasn't optimistic.

Without a working flour mill, Haiti had to import bagged flour, instead of the cheaper alternative of importing bulk wheat and milling it domestically. It was insane that a country of 7.5 million people did not have a functioning flour mill; even little Grenada where I came from, with all of 100,000 people, had a flour mill. After being shut abandoned for a decade, Haiti's dilapidated flour mill needed a heavy dose of money and management to make it operational. If privatisation could achieve that, it would be a good thing for Haiti. A win-win situation: right? Wrong.

Haiti may be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but if there is one thing Haitians still have left, it's their pride. Privatisation was a very hot topic of discussion among Haitians; from the salubrious heights of Pétion-Ville to the slums of Cité Soleil. There seemed to be one overriding consensus on the plan to sell state assets to foreigners: No! At least that was the most vocal side of the argument; I once saw plastered on the wall of the Port Authority (which we were also trying to privatise): 'PRIVATISATION = AIDS = DEATH!!'

LITTLE CHOICE

It was abundantly clear that Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Haitian president whom the United States had reinstalled after being deposed in a coup d'état two years earlier, was no fan of privatisation. Though an avowed socialist, he had little choice in the matter: the price Aristide had to pay for being restored to power was to follow the West's agenda, of which privatisation of Haiti's bloated and inefficient state enterprises was a top priority.

The government came up with all kinds of excuses why they should postpone the privatisation programme - the companies weren't ready for sale; they should have a referendum first; they should change the law; etc - but the World Bank, IMF and USAID applied unremitting pressure: you will privatise. As we were to discover to our cost later on, this was not a good basis for a privatisation programme.

Finally, Bid Day for La Minoterie arrived. Of the original four bidders, in the end only Seaboard Corporation of the USA presented a bid envelope; the other three declined.

Three days later, on a Monday afternoon, we all reassembled in the prime minister's office to open Seaboard's bid envelope: government people, World Bank people, Seaboard people and dozens of others, all sweating in ties and jackets. But instead of bringing out the bid envelope, a sheepish-looking official came out bearing an official letter stamped from the President's Office: Effective that morning, the entire privatisation programme was suspended - pending a national referendum. Aristide had stuck to his guns.

SOBERING LESSON

Once the Haitian people had legitimised the programme through a referendum, we would be contacted "in due course", we were told. We shuffled out, tails squarely between legs. That evening, the bar at the El Rancho hotel was full of forlorn faces, drowning sorrows and muttering incantations. Damn!

And so it came to pass, that the Bretton Woods group learned a sobering lesson in the art of dealing with recalcitrant Third-World countries: You can lead a horse to water; but you cannot make it drink. Horses, like politicians, can be stubborn beasts at times.

(On October 14, 1997, Prime Minister Rosny Smarth signed the documents transferring ownership of La Minoterie to Seaboard Corporation and Continental Grain. The sale of La Minoterie had finally been executed, under Aristide's successor René Préval.).

Fast-forward 15 years and I was again back in Haiti, again at the behest of the World Bank, working on a 'Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Road Map' for Haiti and the Caribbean.

One immediate gratification I got was to learn of the fate of the privatised flour mill, now called Les Moulins d'Haiti - an unqualified success story. It gave me a small tug of pride to see a giant first dividend cheque on the wall of the privatisation agency - US$150,000 - from the privatised flour mill. The flour mill has been a good corporate citizen. Ten minutes after Haiti's devastating earthquake of January 2010, the flour mill, like the rest of Port-au-Prince, lay in ruins.

The new mill's owners, Seaboard Corporation, Continental Grain and their local partners, invested millions into rebuilding and improving the mill, which reopened on December 15th, 2011.

All we need are a few more good deals like that. Pity good deals are so hard to find. Haiti is, by any measure, a "difficult environment" in which to do business. It's difficult to do anything. You cannot realistically plan more than two meetings per day because it takes an hour to get anywhere. The streets are crammed with people, potholes, garbage, vendors of every item imaginable, mechanic shops, manic motorbikes plus the ubiquitous minibuses, or 'tap-taps'.

Earthquake damage is still very much in evidence all across Port-au-Prince; but so too are the rebuilding efforts, large and small. All around the city you constantly hear the sounds hammers, generators, trucks: reconstruction in progress. But there is a long way to go.

WHERE DID THE MONEY GO?

Indeed, money has been flooding into Haiti, billions and billions of it. Three years later, one is tempted to ask: Where did it all go? On looking around Port-au-Prince, you do not see much sign of the US$12 billion-plus that has allegedly been poured into Haiti since the earthquake. This is what is known as donor overload: throwing more money at a country than it can absorb.

However, there is one immediate sign of where a lot of the aid money has gone: Pajeros. Or Land Cruisers or Pathfinders take your pick, but Port-au-Prince's narrow streets are jammed with big SUVs emblazoned with an alphabet soup of NGO logos. There are 560 registered NGOs active in Haiti; and that does not include the multilateral donor agencies, development agencies, UN agencies, diplomatic staff or church groups - the place is awash with well-intentioned white people!

At the gleaming Giant and Caribbean supermarkets in uptown Pétion-Ville, the car parks are crammed with SUVs, engines thrumming while Monsieur pops inside to pick up a smoked turkey pannini and freshly squeezed jus d'orange for lunch. It costs a lot to hire expatriates.

EASY COME, EASY GO

Money leeches out of Haiti as fast as it is pumped in; all of the products in those uptown supermarkets are imported; and most of the salaries paid to foreign staff never reach Haiti - everyone lives off allowances. Haiti's President Michel Martelly recently dropped a bit of a clanger when he complained that 40 per cent of all aid money is siphoned off by outside contractors, vendors and consultants. I would say that is a conservative estimate.

This donor overload has led to a handout mentality among the recipients; easy come, easy go. Nothing has any value, because everything is free. Trucks are donated in one year, scrapped the next. Pumps for village wells are donated; but no money for maintenance, so things fall apart, to coin a phrase.

Heads of charities fly down in private jets and pose for pictures at water pumps with half-naked children; but one cannot help but wonder: How many Haitians are really helped, in the long term, by all this do-gooding? Not a lot.

S. Brian Samuel worked for the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, from 1998 to 2007. He currently consults on project financing and public-private partnerships. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and stevenbriansamuel@gmail.com.


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