5 Lessons From Haiti's Disaster

What the earthquake taught us about foreign aid.

1. Jobs are everything.

All humans need money -- they need it to buy food and water every day. And no matter how hard the government or the aid industry tries, people will want for all three things until they are employed.

The world pledged some $10.2 billion in recovery aid to Haiti after Jan. 12's devastating earthquake. Imagine how many people that money could employ, putting them to work on tasks like removing rubble (only 2 percent of which has been cleared to date), rebuilding key government buildings, and planting trees in a country that is almost entirely deforested. And yet so far, just 116,000 people have been employed in this way. Haiti has 9.8 million people, and at least half were unemployed even before the earthquake. If we focused our efforts on the singular task of getting them jobs -- even if we did nothing else -- Haiti's reconstruction could be a success.

2. Don't starve the government.

The international community doesn't know best. Local people do. NGOs like the one that I am lucky to work with cannot replace the state -- nor can the United Nations or anyone else. We don't have the expertise, and we won't stay forever. We don't have the same stake in building a community that the locals themselves have. And if aid is to work, it can't fall apart when the expats leave.

On this, almost everyone agrees. But the opposite approach has characterized Haiti relief. The dollar figures tell the real story: A mere 0.3 percent of the more than $2 billion in humanitarian aid pledged by major donors has ended up with local authorities. That money will hardly compensate for the 20 percent of civil servants who died in the quake.

Some donors argue that the Haitian government is rife with corruption and mismanagement -- and that infusing it with money will only make matters worse. But we need to strengthen the public sector, not weaken it. And that will take a working budget. It's impossible to be transparent and track your budgets when you lack computers, electricity, and even the personnel to do so. Until the government has the resources it needs, Haiti will remain the republic of NGOs.

3. Give them something to go home to.

Today, some 1.3 million Haitians live in tent camps amid often squalid conditions -- yet no one has been able to convince them to resettle. Why don't they want to leave? Because there is nothing to draw them back. Many of these displaced men and women didn't own the houses that collapsed around then; they rented them -- often under very unfavorable conditions. They were in debt to bad landlords. They had no schools or clinics.

Enticing them to return home will mean providing exactly what they lacked before: housing, education, and health care. Ironically, Haitians are getting some of those things now in the camps. They have shelter in the 69,700 tents distributed by donors; they have the food and hygiene kits that NGOs offer. The tent camps may well become semipermanent homes if those services don't also exist in the cities, villages, and towns.

4. Waste not, want not.

At least half of aid money probably never reaches its recipients, eaten up by overhead; often it's even more. I know of no other business or enterprise in which this would be an acceptable operational strategy. Equally frustrating, sometimes the money doesn't show up at all. Of the donor dollars promised for 2010, Haiti has so far received a mere 38 percent, or $732.5 million, excluding debt relief. Nine months after the disaster, not a cent of the U.S. donation for Haiti's reconstruction has been disbursed; it's tied up in appropriations. Imagine trying to re-engineer a devastated country when your budget is at the mercy of political whims in foreign lands.

5. Relief is the easy part.

Disaster relief is not reconstruction. We haven't rebuilt Haiti despite giving 1.1 million people access to drinking water; we didn't remake the country with the 11,000 latrines that have been installed. "Building Haiti back better" means sustaining those temporary gains and adding education, health care, services, and good governance.

What's most important in getting started? Economic growth. Yet it is a challenge hardly mentioned in aid documents or strategies -- coming up only twice in the United Nations' most recent 44-page report. Poverty of the kind that was so acutely revealed this January can't be defeated until there is a brighter economic future for the millions of Haitians who are ready to seize it.

PRNEWSFOTO/Austin College


The End of the 'Peaceful Rise'?

Even China's elites don't know where it's headed.

For all the breathless headlines, there is no real clarity as to what kind of global power China will become over the next critical decade. But if the international community is in the dark about China's 21st-century trajectory, it is likely because there is no real consensus among the Chinese themselves.

Throughout the first decades of the reform era, China under Deng Xiaoping quietly and gradually sought to join a wide range of international organizations and regimes. Top policy advisors such as economist Wu Jinglian -- who eventually earned the moniker "Mr. Market" -- openly favored market reform and integration with the global economy. At the same time, Deng retained earlier elements of Chinese strategy, such as the "Four Modernizations" (agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology) aimed at transforming China into a self-reliant power by the early 21st century; and military strategists like Adm. Liu Huaqing, who led the Chinese navy during the 1980s, were laying out a vision for a seafaring force that would be the equal of the United States by the mid-21st century.

The result of Deng's blending of old and new was the emergence of a global power that nonetheless maintained a low political and military profile. Chinese foreign policy hewed closely to one of Deng's guiding principles -- "hide brightness and cherish obscurity."

Yet the consensus of the Deng era began to fray over the past decade. As China's economy continued to grow and the country's presence overseas expanded deep into Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa, Deng's dictum became out of sync with reality. With some outsiders beginning to envision a newly empowered China posing a threat to the West, senior Communist Party official Zheng Bijian sought to explain China's growing power and influence to the rest of the world. Arriving at the notion of "peaceful rise," which he started using in 2003 and popularized in a 2005 Foreign Affairs article, Zheng argued that unlike other former great powers, China's rise would not be based on the exploitation of others. Rather, the theory -- some might say marketing slogan -- stressed that China's rise would benefit the Chinese people and the rest of the world.

Most of China's top leaders quickly came out in support of the motto. But the debate over it was instructive: Some Chinese scholars worried that the word "rise" was too provocative for foreigners, while others didn't like the word "peace," arguing it wouldn't allow for China to be aggressive if the need arose, for instance should Taiwan suddenly declare independence. As Yan Xuetong, a professor at Tsinghua University, argued at the time, "All peace strategies that would prevent China's rise must be excluded." In official circles, the term soon morphed into the more soporific "peaceful development."

Today, without Beijing's clear guidance, a great debate has arisen among China's intelligentsia over the country's role in the world. Some are clearly ready to see China assert itself as a global power. At the height of the financial crisis, for example, China's central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan suggested the time was ripe for the world to move away from the dollar as the reserve currency. International relations scholars such as Fudan University's Shen Dingli openly tout China's right to establish military bases to protect its overseas interests. But other Chinese officials and thinkers just as clearly sense danger in such boldness. "I don't think China should become another U.S. in global politics, and it couldn't even if it wanted to," scholar Wang Jisi has opined.

This debate about how China can advance its interests in the world is not simply a choice between seizing the moment and staying the course. Some Chinese officials have called on their government to shoulder more international responsibilities. Premier Wen Jiabao, for example, said in an April speech that China would step up its contributions to international efforts in such areas as education, medical care, and debt reduction because it is "the aspiration of the international community and in China's own interest, too." Others, such as reporter Wang Di, have written of the need for large Chinese companies operating abroad to consider corporate social responsibility, lest they be labeled forces of "arrogant capital expansion."

Perhaps the most profound challenge, as several Chinese thinkers now articulate, is not any external threat, but rather the changing political culture inside China. "Three decades of reform have led to a rapid increase of wealth in China, and this in turn has also made the Chinese people arrogant," Ye Hailin, research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in a stinging critique of current Chinese sensibilities. "The Chinese people are no longer tolerant of criticisms." 

How this debate will shape China's future remains an open question. But perhaps the most important point is that it is taking place at all -- not simply behind the famously closed doors of Zhongnanhai, but before the Chinese people and the rest of the world.