For decades, as Haiti’s agrarian economy was neglected, the rural poor flooded Port-au-Prince, occupying steep hills, flood-prone ravines and coastal mud flats. They sought opportunity that was typically a fading mirage. Those killed by the quake were mostly poor people crowded onto marginal land, living in precarious substandard homes and facing the direst economic prospects imaginable.
To be sure, these imbalances reflect Haiti’s fundamental inequalities as a whole. Before the disaster, roughly 70 percent of total national income was held by just 20 percent of the population, most of them a narrow urban (and predominantly mulatto) elite residing in Port-au-Prince. Generations of terrible governance preserved this unjust status quo.
Meanwhile, international donors sidelined Haiti’s stark inequalities. From the 1990s onward, they bypassed democratically elected governments, channeling funds instead to foreign nongovernmental organizations enacting projects designed by outsiders. Their quest for domestic stability only resulted in more poverty and a progressive weakening of the state.
Today, as relief gives way to reconstruction, foreign and domestic authorities have an unprecedented opportunity to reverse these historical trends. The March 31 donor conference offers a platform for the Haitian government, the United Nations and its emissary Bill Clinton, private banks, governments, businesses, and civil society to rebalance Haiti for good.
At a minimum, they should consider a comprehensive strategy that includes the following five priorities: