OP-Ed & Features, CARICOM Affairs - Thursday, February 18, 2010 23:25

France in Haiti: A Fresh Start by Sarkozy?

By , Syndicated Contributor

Sarkozy in Hiati At last a French President visited Haiti – a country that contributed greatly to France’s accumulation of wealth in the 18th Century and which France impoverished for a century after that.

Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in devastated Haiti on February 17, a month and five days after a massive earthquake ravaged the Capital, Port-au-Prince killing more than 200,000 people; maiming tens of thousands of others, and wreaking billions of dollars in damage.

The extent of the damage and loss of life in Haiti were undoubtedly due to the country’s lack of physical infrastructure and its poor building standards, neither of which could be accomplished in a situation where 70 percent of its gross domestic product was paid over to France for over a century.

This is not to ignore the excesses of Haitian governments, particularly under the Duvaliers, which also deprived the country of monies that should have been pumped into constructing infrastructure, providing education and health facilities, and establishing regulatory bodies to ensure higher standards across a range of activity including the construction of buildings.

The harsh imposition by France of a levy of 90 million gold francs, which Haiti did not finish repaying until 1947, also does not excuse recent Haitian governments and political parties for failing to spend aid funds on an agreed and country-wide development programme instead of on narrow political interests.

Indeed, on any programme for constructing a new Haiti – both in a physical and societal sense – Haitian governments should be mindful that not only the Haitian people but the entire international community will want guaranteed machinery to ensure that aid money is spent on sustainable development.

The challenge is huge. Taking Haiti off the world’s “sick man” list is not a short-term or cheap affair. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has calculated that the rebuilding programme will cost US$14 billion and will take at least 10 years.

And, while there have been mountainous pledges of assistance from many governments as television images riveted the eyes of the world on Haiti, experience of previous disasters elsewhere in the world teaches that pledges often fall by the way side as soon as the cameras move on.

Acknowledging “the wounds of colonization” and saying that he knows well “the story of our countries on the question of debt”, President Sarkozy , in addition to cancelling all of Haiti’s US$77 million debt to France, also promised to provide aid of US$400 million over the next two years.  Included in the aid package is US$40 million in support of the Haitian government’s budget.

This latter commitment was warmly welcomed by Haiti’s Prime Minister, Jean-Max Bellerive who described it as “crucial” and added: It means we are going to use it the way we want”. The Prime Minister’s statement is understandable given that the government has to try to provide some basic services, such as policing, to the country in circumstances where government revenues must be very little.

But the question still arises as to whether the French government’s pledge to Haiti is enough.

Haiti’s exiled former President Jean Bertrand Aristide had calculated the sum that France extracted from Haiti, as the price for recognising its participation in the international community in 1825, as US$21 billion in today’s values.

As Sarkozy was entering Haiti, Professor Norman Girvan of the University of the West Indies, and former Secretary-General of the Association of Caribbean States, in an invited comment to the Associated Press was pretty clear about France’s obligation to Haiti and what Sarkozy should do.

He declared: “If President Sarkozy were to make restitution in the name of all the decent people of the French Republic for the historic wrong; and support the efforts of the Haitian people to rebuild their shattered lives and their economy with the resources thereby provided, he would undoubtedly gain the respect of the entire world and be a prime candidate for the award of the Nobel Prize for 2010”.

Somehow, I don’t believe that President Sarkozy will be a Nobel Prize recipient for returning to Haiti what was so callously extracted from it, and which is the underlying basis for its persistent poverty and  underdevelopment. And, it is instructive that the Haitian government is not pushing it. Millien Romage, a legislator for Aristide’s party also told the Associated Press: “This is not a time to be making loud demands. We don’t want to fight. But perhaps the French could recognize their debt by helping us to get out of poverty. They can help build roads, houses, schools.”

Sarkozy has at least made a start and it is to be hoped that when France joins other nations at a high-level international donors’ conference for Haiti, which will be held in New York next month, the French government will open its cheque book more generously to a country that it exploited and impoverished.

Canada, which has no history of exploitation of Haiti (or any other country for that matter) has been far more generous than France.   Even before the calamitous January earthquake, Canada had pledged more than US$500 million to Haiti over the next five years.

And, in a visit that preceded Sarkozy’s, Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, discussed with the Haitian President, Rene Preval, the creation of a common fund for Haiti’s recovery to be managed jointly by the Haitian government and donors.

A partnership between the Haitian government and the international community is crucial to the successful construction of Haiti and to the restoration of its society.

Calls for the Haitian government to be “masters of their own development”, should be tempered with realism. Governance in Haiti was fractious before the Earthquake, the government is now in tatters, and many who were leaders in Haitian society were victims of the earthquake. In this connection, Haiti needs a lot of help including help in the governance of the country over the next few years.

The representative of the 14 governments of the Caribbean Community, former Jamaican Prime Minister, P J Patterson, put the task ahead in clear terms at the Ministerial Conference on Haiti held in Canada on January 25 when he said: “Reconstructing Haiti needs to encompass more than replacing destroyed buildings and infrastructure and eviscerated institutions and must include a developmental dimension. Rebuilding should therefore also include the empowerment of the Haitians by the teaching of new skills”.

Sir Ronald Sanders · Syndicated Contributor

Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant, Senior Fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat.

www.sirronaldsanders.com

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