Foreign Aid

Patricia Adams: Haiti needs rights

(January 11, 2011) One option for Haiti is to make it a U.S. territory like Puerto Rico, writes Probe International’s Executive Director, Patricia Adams.

One year after Haiti’s earthquake, the country is no better off. Nearly 3,500 people have now died as a result of cholera and just one-quarter of 1% of the 400,000 buildings that were damaged or destroyed have been rebuilt, leaving over one million in squalid tent cities. The country’s $12-billion reconstruction plan — run by Bill Clinton and mired in political infighting and bureaucratic delays — calls for the aid agencies to build houses. As a result, families are loath to use their own funds in rebuilding, especially since a spanking new residence would encourage those with political connections to seize it — in Haiti, most do not have secure rights to their property.

Needless to say, had just one-third of the $12-billion in aid monies been given directly to the million homeless Haitians — say $4,000 per person, or $20,000 for a family of five — and had Haitians had secure property rights, most today would be in new housing better than their crude pre-earthquake abodes, and with cash to spare. The construction activity from building homes for one million people would have provided jobs for all during the last year with lasting effects after the construction boon was over. (Ironically, had secure property rights been in place all along, the earthquake damage would have been much diminished — Haiti’s residential and commercial buildings alike all fell like pancakes because, in the absence of secure rights, Haitians did not build to last.)

The $12-billion is not being disbursed according to plan because Bill Clinton and his Haitian cronies are still debating how to divvy it up — everyone is jockeying for a share of the lucrative contracts that one of these years will be let. But even had the $12-billion not been hoarded by these Foreign Aid Czars, little of lasting value would have been accomplished. In the absence of secure title, few individuals and businesses would be investing for the future. The law of the jungle — the rule in Haiti since its “independence” in 1804 — would soon make waste of the $12-billion, the same fate as befell the estimated $10-billion in foreign aid previously “invested.”

History need not be repeated. It should be self-evident to all that a first order of business for those concerned about Haiti’s future development must involve a validation of property rights for Haiti’s 10 million people. The $12-billion fund should establish a Property Rights Commission that converts the insecure, informal property rights that most Haitians now recognize — in effect, these are a form of squatter’s rights — into formal and secure rights. Where ownership is ambiguous or disputed, the $12-billion fund could be used to settle the dispute by giving the disputants fair compensation.

As a prerequisite to the Property Rights Commission, however, a legal system must be in place to enforce the property rights to be assigned. Haitians won’t trust any property rights regime that isn’t accompanied by a system of governance that they can trust. Certainly, the past history of thugs and dictators following phony elections in which a small percentage of the population votes, won’t do. For this reason, a new governance structure must come in, one credibly backed by the Haitian people. I recommend this occur via a referendum, administered by Canada and the United States under United Nations auspices, in which the Haitian people are given a choice between their existing system of government and that of their island neighbour, Puerto Rico, which is a commonwealth under U.S. protection.

In the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the populace periodically votes on whether to become independent of the U.S., to seek U.S. statehood, or to maintain the status quo. To date, Puerto Ricans have exercised their sovereignty as a people by sticking with their commonwealth: They elect a local governor and local representatives, and run a local judicial system with a twist — the ultimate appeal in matters dealing with the constitution and federal law is to the U.S. Supreme Court. With the assurance that justice will ultimately prevail, Puerto Rico has been a safe place for locals and foreigners to invest, and one of the most prosperous jurisdictions in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico is a lively democracy in which more than 80% of the population turns out to vote.

Haitians have long watched the Puerto Rican system and, if given a choice in a referendum, may well choose to seek a commonwealth relationship under the protection of the U.S., which in any case sees itself as the regional guardian under its Monroe Doctrine, and has unhesitatingly occupied Haiti when it has deemed it necessary. Alternatively, Haiti may prefer to seek some form of territorial status under Canada. (In either case, Haitians, as suitors, would need to make the case to its would-be guardian.)

Should Haitians in a high-turnout referendum choose instead to remain an independent country under a new constitution that entrenched their newly acquired property rights, the result would again be promising. Haitians for the first time would have exercised their sovereignty as a people, and for the first time they would have legal, constitutionally protected deeds to their property. In effect, Haiti would now have a broad property-owning class with much to protect, giving these former squatters political clout. The citizens of Haiti would have new-found stakes in their country and the means to make higher demands of their government.

Patricia Adams is executive director of Probe International.

Patricia Adams, January 11,2010, Financial Post

Further Reading from Probe International:

Further Resources about Property Rights in Haiti:

Article with practical solutions for solving Haiti’s property rights problem
Hernando de Soto and Madeleine Albright, Commission on Legal Empowerment and the Poor
Senator Lugar calls for land titling
Articles explaining deterrents to investing in Haiti

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