Haiti, an original signatory of the UN Charter and the site of the organization’s first development planning effort in 1949, illustrates the numerous challenges facing poor countries and the UN development system in moving beyond the rhetoric of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
As the United Nations finalizes the SDGs, a paramount issue is their relevance for countries most in need of support, those occupying the bottom of the poverty-league tables. To dilute expert over-influence associated with the MDGs, the UN consulted widely to fashion the SDGs. Yet, are the SDGs so comprehensive that they are impracticable? An assessment of national execution capacity is essential to determine which SDGs are priorities, highlight implementation opportunities, and identify sustainability constraints facing national authorities and the UN alike. The UN development system is well acquainted with Haiti, and its history suggests major challenges ahead.
Is more less?
The likely doubling of goals from 8 MDGs to 17 SDGs and quadrupling of targets from 21 to 1692 reflects the evident escalation in ambition, which is echoed in the draft outcome document for the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD): “Our goal is to eradicate poverty and hunger in this generation and to achieve sustainable development by promoting inclusive economic growth, protecting the environment, and promoting peace and inclusive societies.”
Pivotal changes of content and emphasis are clear from the different stages of building the post-2015 agenda. As the UN process of reflection, discussion, consultation, and agreement moves inexorably towards the September 2015 Summit to adopt “an ambitious and transformative” post-2015 development agenda, what awaits the SDGs in Haiti?
Haiti: Back to the future
Haiti is both an ideal case for scrutiny and an exception. No country has a longer experience with the UN development system. Indeed, Haiti’s post-war development odyssey is intimately associated with the creation, expansion, and refinement of the UN’s overall development mandate and operations. In 1948, Haiti became the first UN member to request and receive a comprehensive survey mission. Staffed by technical experts from the UN Secretariat, UNESCO, FAO, WHO, and the IMF, the mission published its 327-page report in 1949 that detailed the situation pertaining at the time and future prospects. Elevated to “bible” status in Haiti, the 1949 report was considered a model to emulate elsewhere. It established development planning in Haiti and the belief that technical assistance targeting key areas of public policy and services would trigger accelerated development. For over a decade and half, the report was the framework for economic and social plans designed to attract external capital to finance “take-off.”
Under the UN’s technical assistance (TA) program, foreign experts were assigned to the resident representative’s office, usually with annual contracts. The critique at that time by observers of the UN’s TA effort remains pertinent today. For instance, UNESCO’s publicity about Marbial was “so extravagantly optimistic” that it stoked local cynicism. Meanwhile, the WHO-UNICEF anti-yaws project initially failed to differentiate between yaws and the closely related syphilis, which resulted in the impression of a syphilis-ridden country and caused offence and resentment.
In addition, the key 1949 report itself was deeply flawed. By failing to differentiate between the interests of the elite and the peasantry, the UN did not understand how each group differed in its own understandings of economic development. Equally, by failing to recognize local participation as a “central problem for planning in Haiti,” the nature and sequencing of development efforts faltered.
The MDGs in Haiti
The context of MDG implementation in Haiti was exceptional, being characterized by political instability, the presence of a UN stabilization mission, re-engagement of the international development community after a period of absence, recurring natural disaster, and a lack of accurate statistics. Overall economic conditions were fragile and public service delivery as well as infrastructure maintenance weak.
On history’s long arc, Haiti’s terrible January 2010 earthquake garnered a generous outpouring of relief and reconstruction financial resources, attracted new donors, and created optimism about a new opportunity to address deep-rooted structural issues. A sense of déjà vu prevailed as the plethora of technical assistance and foreign investments for infrastructure, tourism, crafts and design, minerals exploration, rehabilitation of production; they were strikingly reminiscent of 1950s measures to identify sources of growth.
The World Bank-ONPES 2014 poverty diagnosis, the first in over a decade, identifies the impact of fresh resources and continued remittances on poverty indicators. Extreme poverty dropped from 31 percent to 24 percent over the decade to 2012, and school enrolment increased from 78 percent to 90 percent. Yet with 2.5 million people (around a quarter of the population) unable to cover their basic food needs, Haiti is still one of the world’s most unequal countries, as the gap grows in particular between Port-au-Prince and rural areas.
Fast forward to June 2015
News events in early summer 2015 help to situate Haiti’s and the UN’s SDG-related task. On June 3, ProPublica and National Public Radio (NPR) published a report on the American Red Cross (ARC) earthquake relief program. This report highlighted the hubris in the ARC’s publicity around ambitious post-earthquake plans that promised to “develop brand new communities” and make a lasting impact, no doubt bolstered by a half a billion dollar budget and the significant Haitian pledge to “refound” the country. These plans foundered. Even with the money at its disposal, the ARC was unable to ameliorate considerable contextual conditions by resolving severe delays in securing land titles or compensating for the lack of community counterparts.
Also on June 3, the United States Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued its latest review of USAID’s earthquake reconstruction program. It found key infrastructure projects had not achieved intended results and had met with increased costs and delays due to a lack of engineering staff, poor planning, and design faults. For example, a New Settlements Program was initially budgeted to spend $55.4 million to prepare 15,000 plots of land for housing construction and to build houses on up to 4,000 of those plots. By September 2014, the number of plots of land was reduced to 2,013, down 87% from the initial target, and the number of houses that USAID would build was down to 906, a reduction of 77%. Program costs were revised upwards to $75.7 million. By late 2014 the execution time frame for activities under the US Government’s Post-Earthquake Haiti Strategy was extended from September 2015 to September 2018. In short, it will take longer and cost far more to do less.
Corruption was not linked directly to the post-2015 Development Agenda and the FfD conference. Yet the corruption issue has not gone away as new analysis makes clear the links between corruption and civil violence, public disgust about graft threatens to bring Latin American governments to the brink of collapse, and practical ideas are tabled to fight corruption.
Haiti ranks joint 161 in Transparency International’s public corruption index that measures perceptions of public sector corruption. Tellingly, there is no improvement in Haiti’s score over the period 2012-2014, despite, or perhaps because of, significant flows of post-earthquake financial resources.
Conclusion, plus ça change
The UN and Haiti have been locked in a development embrace for nearly 70 years. It is unnecessary to discount the damage of poor leadership—some have classified Haiti a “kleptocracy” —to characterize the results of almost seven decades of UN development cooperation as meager and disappointing.
If the SDGs are truly to represent a new beginning, it is imperative to apply some lessons learned. Identifying the priority interventions in the light of the operational experiences of other actors is a critical first step—in short, to admit the folly of seeking to implement all SDGs concurrently from day one. A second essential step is a fundamental capacity assessment. In 1941 James Leyburn wrote about Haiti’s problem of overpopulation and its solutions (including education, soil and agricultural improvements, and public works projects) in the following way: “Each of these ‘solutions’ is a major problem in itself, considering the limitations of the country.”
Domestic financial and capacity limitations remain; a keen focus and modesty about what can be achieved would herald a welcome change of approach for both Haiti and the UN development system. The same thinking undoubtedly applies to many other countries that have also been the target of efforts by the UN development system. In summary, the key lesson learned for SDG implementation is that better-coordinated responses matched to local capacity can prosper but only if such efforts are not undermined by corruption.
Peter Sollis is a writer and consultant on Latin America and a former official at the Inter-American Development Bank and Oxfam-GB.
Photo: Two boys hold their brothers outside a temporary shelter in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. UN Photo/UNICEF/Marco Dormino