Haiti: are we ready to lead?

Making it work will take generations, not years

Are we ready to lead?

As the entire world laments the difficulties of delivering aid and succour to Haiti, one inevitable question hangs in the distance. What will it take to make Haiti function as a country? Canadians are already answering the immediate call for help in a very significant way. But are we prepared to make the same commitment to Haiti’s future?

Haiti is undoubtedly the most benighted country in our hemisphere, with a long history of failed governments and repressive dictatorships. Yet history also shows it once enjoyed a brief period of relative calm and progress. While under U.S. control from 1915 to 1934, Haiti actually functioned in a way that today seems impossible. It is instructive to consider the successes and failures of that time.

U.S. occupation of Haiti followed a particularly bloody coup and concern that Germany might seize control of the island during the First World War. The U.S. undertook an ambitious modernization program: hospitals and schools were built, roads laid and a modern telephone system was established. Various diseases were brought under control, and the domestic government operated largely without corruption. When the U.S. left, Haitian bonds were trading at par.

But local democracy never took root. In 1930 a commission struck by U.S. president Herbert Hoover recommended prompt U.S. withdrawal for political reasons, although the commissioners recognized this would likely doom the country to “become an oligarchy.” Nineteen years was long enough to construct working infrastructure, but not long enough to grow a democracy.

Canada will soon have nearly as many troops in Haiti as we have in Afghanistan. And for many Canadians, the case for helping Haiti is much stronger. The island nation is within our hemisphere and we have many long-standing cultural and historical connections, particularly in Quebec. Canada was also providing substantial aid prior to the earthquake, as the high Canadian death toll has tragically demonstrated.

As Canada makes ready to withdraw from Afghanistan next year, there is substantial logic, and a strong moral argument, for refocusing our military and aid efforts on helping Haiti in a bigger way. We might even supplant the current dominant U.S. role.

And yet it’s necessary to recognize that there will be much more to this task than simply setting up hospitals or building roads and other infrastructure. Like Afghanistan, Haiti is a country without a history of democracy or stable government. While Canada has already been involved in building a police force and establishing other local services in Haiti, the current chaos suggests little real progress was made.

A leadership role for Canada in Haiti will entail a much bigger commitment than anything we have done to date: in money, effort and time. As previous U.S. experience shows, massive investments in new infrastructure are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for success. The patience to fashion a democratic tradition is also required. Making Haiti work will take generations, not years. And while Canada ought to be there, we also need to appreciate the size of the problem before us.

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