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Is Haiti at risk of becoming a permanent failed state?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 20 Feb 2013 05:40 GMT
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By Anastasia Moloney

Carnival in Haiti this month was one of the few things Haitians could be certain about and celebrate.

Much less certain is whether the country’s ruling elite can reach a consensus about how to rebuild the earthquake-shattered country amid growing donor fatigue.

“Unless the nation’s leaders pursue a national governability accord to organise long-delayed elections, halt unconstitutional appointments and address basic needs, Haiti could become a permanent failed state,” Mark Schneider, vice president of the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, wrote in a recent column in the Miami Herald.

Haitian President Michel Martelly has proposed a so-called “Five-E” plan - employment, état de droit (rule of law), education, environment and energy - to lift Haiti from decades of political turmoil and the devastation caused by the massive earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010.

However, since coming to power 20 months ago, Martelly’s presidency has been marred by conflicts with an opposition-dominated parliament and disagreements over his choice of prime minister that threaten the already slow reconstruction efforts.

One key area of conflict among Haitian lawmakers centres around the country’s electoral body - how to form it and its composition - an issue that has ratcheted up political uncertainty. It has meant local and municipal elections, which should have taken place last year, have been delayed indefinitely. The elections would aim to fill 10 seats in Haiti’s 30-member Senate and hundreds of seats in local government, such as mayors and councillors.

“Haiti is very fragile. It still desperately needs stability and security," Javier Ciurlizza, head of ICG’s Latin America and Caribbean programme told AlertNet by phone in Bogota. “Martelly needs to convince his own people and donors that progress and stability are achievable. Without a national consensus, Martelly unfortunately faces the specter of a failed presidency, and Haiti risks international abandonment.”

It was never going to be easy for Martelly, a former pop star known as Sweet Micky, with no previous government experience to build a national consensus and to wield over a polarised parliament made up of numerous factions - long a feature of Haitian politics.

“While he has shown exceptional ability to connect with Haitians, both rich and poor, in Haiti and abroad, he has not sufficiently used that capacity to address factors that could reduce political tensions and build national consensus,” says the latest ICG report on Haiti.

The urgent need to build political consensus was echoed recently by Mariano Fernandez, former head of the 10,600-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

“The most difficult challenge remains that Haitians reach a political agreement to have a much more stable democracy,” Fernandez told reporters earlier this month in Port-au-Prince at the end of his term in Haiti.

WINNER TAKES ALL

Martelly, like many of his predecessors, appears at the mercy of a dysfunctional political system that he inherited.

“The main obstacle to political stability is the kind of politics you have in Haiti where it’s a winner-takes-all politics, which means agreements seem to be very difficult to achieve,” ICG’s Ciurlizza said.

The legacy of the 1957-86 Duvalier dictatorship, scores of different political parties that don’t represent the interests of Haiti’s majority poor, along with a deep-rooted culture of clientelism and cronyism have all created a weak political system in Haiti that’s personality driven and all too centred on one individual, ICG says.

“The absence of strong parties has led to a power vacuum and weak democratic institutions. The vacuum has been filled by personalised politics too shallow and incoherent to address the country’s weaknesses,” said ICG’s report.

FRUSTRATION

Without a political base and consensus, it seems near impossible for Martelly to deliver on his “Five- E” plan and alleviate abject poverty. Around 350,000 Haitians made homeless by the quake still live in makeshift camp settlements sprawled across the capital.

It means Haitians, many of whom voted for Martelly on the hope of bringing change, have yet to see tangible improvements to their lives.

For many Haitians, the most pressing issue remains one of daily survival and putting food on the table. Around 70 percent of Haitians live in poverty and their plight has been made worse following last year’s drought, two tropical storms and rising food prices.

And their frustrations are being increasingly played out in the streets. Between August and October of last year, Martelly faced 128 public protests across Haiti, according to the ICG.

DONOR FATIGUE

Foreign aid donors are also showing signs of frustration over Haiti’s political deadlock.

Canada, one of the biggest donors to Haiti, last month said it is reviewing tens of millions of dollars in aid to the country over concerns about the lack of transparency in how the money is being spent, weak government institutions and the little progress made in rebuilding.

Fears over political instability, corruption and growing skepticism about the slow recovery could partly explain why only half of the $6.04 billion in aid to Haiti pledged by donors from 2010 to 2012 has been disbursed so far and why only about 10 percent of that figure has been channeled directly to the Haitian government, according to U.N. figures.

While that’s the case in Haiti and political infighting continues, apart from its annual carnival, there’s not much to celebrate.

“Haiti today presents little cause for optimism,” Ciurlizza said.

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