Haiti’s Recovery is Real

Three years after a devastating earthquake rocked the country, a chorus of critics has slammed the reconstruction effort. Here's why they're wrong.

PORT-AU-PRINCE -"Beyond the mountains," according to a well-known Haitian proverb, there are "more mountains." It's an apt line in a country that has faced outsized challenges for as long as anyone can remember, but one that can only begin to describe the trials posed by the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake, which rocked the half-island nation three years ago. The quake killed more than 200,000 people, displaced 1.5 million, and destroyed some 300,000 buildings. It also inflicted close to $8 billion worth of damage, and destroyed roughly 80 percent of the country's economy.

But Haitians are accustomed to scaling mountains -- and the country's recovery has been stronger than many realize. With support from national and international partners, Haitians are rebuilding a better, more resilient country -- a fact that has been repeatedly overlooked in the international press. Among Haitians, however, the sense of progress is unmistakable.

In Feb. 2012, roughly two years after the quake, Gallup pollsters found that a record low number of Haitians described themselves as "suffering," while a record high number said they were "thriving." Gallup also found that an unprecedented 46 percent of Haitians expressed confidence in national government institutions. (In 2008, just 24 percent reported confidence in the government and by 2010, that number had fallen to 16 percent.)

Despite considerable damage by hurricanes Isaac and Sandy in 2012, Haiti is moving forward. Government, private sector, and international organizations are working with families and communities to rebuild the country and revive its economy. Eighty percent of the 10 million cubic meters of earthquake debris has now been cleared, meaning that the cleanup effort in Haiti has progressed significantly faster than similar efforts following the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. Much of the earthquake debris has been recycled into paving stones, stairs, corridors, houses, and public spaces through a project managed by the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).

At the same time, more than 1.1 million people who were displaced by the quake have been moved out of camps and into long-term housing, also with UNDP support. Neighbourhoods, roads, and houses have been rehabilitated, creating thousands of jobs in the process. More than 40 percent of people employed in this work -- primarily located in low-income communities -- are women. The UNDP is also supporting crucial governance initiatives aimed at increasing transparency and strengthening the rule of law -- the foundation of a better and more inclusive Haiti, and the sine qua non of a vibrant economy able to attract and retain international investment and trade.

Haiti's remarkable recovery, moreover, has been largely driven by Haitians themselves. Within neighbourhoods, community members have set priorities for rebuilding homes and infrastructure, ensuring that the unique risks faced by city-dwellers are satisfactorily addressed. Women, especially, have played an important role in this process. In one program aimed at rehabilitating 16 neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, Petionville, and Delmas, for example, combating gender-based violence with improved public lighting has emerged as a major priority.

The UNDP has established community support centers to facilitate the reconstruction process, enabling some 30,000 families to take charge of repairing and rebuilding their homes to date. At the same time, more than 1,000 families have received $500 grants to buy quality construction materials through an innovative money-transfer scheme that uses mobile phones -- the first ever to support housing repairs.

The UNDP has also helped train more than 7,000 people in home reconstruction, strengthened Haiti's national disaster risk-management system, and launched environmental protection programs. The results have been significant and tangible -- a direct outcome of the international support that followed the earthquake and that remains a critical lifeline. The government of Haiti is now building on these achievements and developing a longer-term development roadmap toward a truly inclusive, resilient society. Haiti's remaining challenges demand the sustained support of the international community, but a horizon with fewer and smaller mountains is now in sight.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that 1 million cubic meters of earthquake debris had been recycled. In fact, only 30 percent of that 1 million cubic meters has been recycled, since not everything is recyclable. 

AFP/Getty Images


Rising Sun

What if Japan actually gets its economic act together?

On Jan. 10, Japan's new government unveiled a $117 billion stimulus package, meant to jumpstart an economy that long ago ran out of gas. Japan's economy has been stuck in what its people call the "lost decades" since the early 1990s, when the stock market and real estate prices collapsed and the country entered a period of economic anemia. Japan has not gone through great hardships: Even without economic growth, most Japanese enjoy good public services, little social decay, and a low crime rate compared with the United States and Europe. But as the "Era of High Growth," as the boom days of the 60s, 70s, and 80s are known in Japan, is receding into distant memory at home, Japan's stock has crashed overseas. Gone are the days of "Japan as No. 1:  Lessons for America," the title of a best-selling 1980 book, or when Chinese leaders went on pilgrimage to Japan to study the secrets of economic development. Few Japanese corporations enjoy global prestige, and the once-mighty Tokyo Stock Exchange is now seen as a hopeless backwater.

Could Japan's stimulus, focusing on public works, incentivizing companies to invest, and providing aid to small firms, make a difference? Like his predecessors, Shinzo Abe, who returned to the position of prime minister in December 2012, has a plan to revitalize Japan. He wants the Bank of Japan to implement inflation targeting and intends to combine a "soft" monetary policy with a fiscal stimulus. Abe shows little inclination to tackle the structural failures responsible for the country's lackluster performance, including a social system that under-employs women, insufficient immigration, inefficient oligopolistic and protected industries, and a value-destroying farm sector. Success is far from certain.

And yet, one could imagine this stimulus, especially if accompanied by measures to tackle the roots of Japan's ailments, could return Japan to an orbit of high growth. This isn't as outlandish an idea as it sounds: New York Times columnist Paul Krugman entitled a recent blog post "Is Japan the Country of the Future Again?" and in a different post argues that "it sure looks like" the Japanese economy is taking the right steps towards growth."

Different countries have distinct sources of national power. North Korea matters because of its weapons and nuisance capabilities. Iran utilizes its religious zeal, covert action, and its armed forces, while Saudi Arabia relies on its oil. A combination of military, economic, technological, educational, and ideological resources makes the United States a superpower. China's cards are its economy, but also its aggressive political-military actions and its huge population.

The only arrow in Japan's quiver is its economy. It has a strong military, the Self-Defense Forces, but has always been extremely reluctant to use it even in peacekeeping operations. Moreover, its military is tailored to operate in association with the United States, making it hard for Tokyo to take advantage of its hard power unilaterally. As for soft power, Japanese academia has little influence outside the archipelago, there are no Japanese NGOs that matter in international affairs, and no Japanese media reaches an overseas audience of any real size. Pop culture and cuisine hardly contribute. But when it comes to economics, Japan is still, despite everything, a big power. China surpassed it as the world's No. 2 in late 2010, but Japan's $5.9 trillion economy is still the world's third largest by more than $2 trillion. It's the world leader in areas like materials science -- many of the most sophisticated inputs in items such as iPhones are made in Japan --and it boasts the world's most impressive transportation infrastructure, despite what you read about all those fancy Chinese trains.

And that's after two decades of little to no growth. If Abe were able to turn Japan around, it might find itself again as a power, with its voice carrying weight in Washington and other capitals. And that would have a profound effect on the geopolitics of Asia and beyond.

Though a stronger Japanese economy would not in itself lead to a massive increase in Japanese military capabilities, it would make it easier to spend more on defense, and also to boost foreign assistance programs to U.S. allies such as the Philippines, a move that a cash-strapped Washington would welcome. In early January, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that to help it counter the threat posed by China, Japan would supply the Philippines with 10 coast-guard vessels as well as communications equipment. A wealthier and more assertive Japan could enlarge these assistance programs throughout Southeast Asia so that countries in the region might decide to court Tokyo rather than appease Beijing.

Tokyo's increased assertiveness would also make it easier to play hardball with Beijing. China applied unilateral sanctions against Japan in the wake of the 2010 and 2012 crises over the Senkakus, the disputed islands in the East China Sea that the Chinese call the Diaoyus. These included restrictions on exports of rare earths, delays at customs for Japanese goods, and support for boycotts of Japanese goods and services.

Japan barely responded to China's provocations. But an economically more self-confident Japanese cabinet might have counterattacked with its own "administrative guidance" on Chinese imports, curtailed the export of Japanese technological inputs to Chinese state-owned conglomerates, and made customs checks for Japanese tourists returning from China sufficiently long to induce them to vacation in other countries. Japanese technology and foreign investment are more important to China than Chinese trade is to Japan. That doesn't mean China would back down, of course -- more assertiveness by Japan raises the odds that Chinese leaders, fearing that appearing soft on Japan would make them vulnerable, could decide to escalate tensions. But it would make such showdowns more of an even fight.

All of this depends, of course, on whether Abe can succeed where his 15 recent predecessors -- including himself -- have failed. The Japanese establishment has no interest in being the England of Asia and joining the United States in its wars, or of returning to its imperial past. But a healthy Japanese economy would remind China it's not the only game in town.