Do it different in Haiti

We have had the impressive spontaneous outpouring of generosity in response to the crisis in Haiti and the fine words about building back the small Caribbean nation better than it was before. The question now is ‘how’? That is going to be one of the hot topics for the leading brains of government, business and the social sector gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos – can they crack it?

The challenge is enormous. Haiti is an isolated outpost of sub-Saharan-style poverty in the Caribbean – it ranked just above Sudan in the United Nation’s ranking of ‘human development’ last year – and has had a long history of political instability and social unrest that persistent interventions by the United States and United Nations have barely kept a lid on. There have also been many pledges to rescue Haiti in the past, which have come to nothing.

There are, however, some grounds for optimism. In mid-2009 Haiti finally benefitted from a World Bank-led debt reduction deal. Preferential access to the US market offers the potential to build an economy based on trade with North America. A development strategy led by the Clinton Global Initiative, according to former President Clinton, was going well before the earthquake, and is a reason to hope, he says. And then there are all the pledges of further aid that are coming. There is also likely to be an unprecedented high-level leadership coalition on Haiti bringing under one umbrella the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative and the United Nations. The challenge in each case is making it work.

State-building has been one of the hot topics in development in recent years. The British economist Paul Collier, in particular, has popularised the idea that the bottom billion of the world’s poor would benefit most from being freed from civil war and dictatorship. Collier has argued, and been criticised for, championing strong intervention, with military force if necessary, by the governments of the rich world to fix the problems of ‘failed states’. It is in the spirit of Collier that some voices have called for a temporary protectorship for Haiti – with the Economist championing putting Bill Clinton in charge, to be succeeded within a year by Brazilian president Lula – to get reconstruction going quickly unshackled by Haitian politics. Clinton says he would only run such an effort in partnership with a local Haitian leader, such as the prime minister.

Security and stability for the people of Haiti should certainly be a priority. Yet the track record of international protectorates after crises has not been great – in Bosnia and Kosovo as much as in Iraq and Afghanistan. The aid industry has burned a lot of money in these countries for few returns, with much of the assistance leaking out in bureaucracy, corruption and lavish payments to western consultants and contractors.

One way to break the cycle of expensive aid stagnation would be for a massive effort from philanthropcapitalists in the area they know best – wealth creation. Could a Marshall Plan led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (to apply its thinking around agiculture and supply chains), backed by multinationals such as Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and Nike, kick start the Haitian economy and tackle chronic food shortages? Then add to that a grand coalition of Omidyar Networks, Grameen, Endeavor and others to promote enterprise – and maybe Haiti could start to work its way out of poverty.

Mass philanthrocapitalism could also be harnessed to get ordinary donations working harder. Kiva and GlobalGiving will surely operate in Haiti, so why not also a donorschoose for schools in Haiti? Could this type of platform help to lever the contribution of one of Haiti’s biggest exports – its people? The Haitian diaspora remits more than $1 billion back home each year. So why not create a network of Mexican-style hometown associations to get some of that money working to build schools, hospitals and bridges? Slice off a piece of the official aid budget to match those contributions and use a donorschoose or Kiva style of interface to connect people to what they are funding and we might get something interesting.

An even more radical idea would be to take up Paul Romer’s idea of charter cities, that might be run by experienced leaders from abroad and compete to be the most successful places to live. The mind boggles (not entirely positively) at the thought of breaking Haiti into a number of charter protectorates and letting competition rip between different leaders – Bill Clinton could take one, Tony Blair another, one perhaps to the former President of Mozambique Joaquim Chissano. And why restrict it to former leaders of countries? Maybe Bill Gates and Muhammad Yunus could be tempted into government for a while? Or might Michael Bloomberg run New York and Port-au-Prince at the same time?

Moving on from the world of fantasy, there is a germ of an idea here – rather than putting recontruction into the hands of bureaucratic planners from the United Nations or the World Bank, why not have some competition? Although this is a terrible tragedy, it is also an opportunity for creative thinking – for doing things much better than before. This has been probably the biggest contribution that the philanthrocapitalists have made to global development – new ideas that challenge orthodoxies and conventional wisdoms.