How Haiti Can Rebuild

The Haiti historian explains why real recovery from the disaster must begin at the grassroots level and addresses the controversial question of whether France should provide “reparations.”
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What are the major obstacles Haiti faces in trying to rebuild after the earthquake?

Laurent Dubois: The problem is in part there is just a major problem about the Haitian state. What is the Haitian state going to look like? Obviously, I mean, that’s been an issue that people have been dealing with for some time and even before the earthquake there was a substantial UN presence and NGO’s and so forth, so all of those kinds of issues that were there before the earthquake are only exacerbated by the major blow that the Haitian state has structurally received really to the core since many of its buildings have been destroyed and so forth. So there is going to be a real question about what the interlocutors are, how the Haitian state is going to interact with others. I mean the state, the institution, the people are still there, but how the infrastructure is going to work is a big question. I would say more broadly one really has to think about Haiti in a complicated way in the sense there are all kinds of forms of organization beyond the state. The state is actually very, in some ways, very limited in its reach within Haiti in terms of certainly in terms of schools, services and many other things. Haiti is an extremely privatized society and most things are done through private trade, so the question of whether the communities of action, you know, how does aid get to particular neighborhoods, it’s very clear already that there is a really different set of experiences between different neighborhoods in Haiti based on where they are and how they’re seen from the outside, so very, very important questions about who the interlocutors are for assistance and what that existence is particularly geared towards. You know, what is going to be done? What is the purpose of that assistance? All those are very big and open questions and in a sense the earthquake just raises the stakes and really perhaps opens up the possibility for a real rethinking of some of those things as well.

Question: What changes must Haiti make to its government and social institutions in order to rebuild?

Laurent Dubois: Well, in a way, I mean, although there has been ongoing problems in the last couple of years, I would say that before the earthquake there was in some ways some positive developments. Many people felt like things were going on a better track. It’s been a very, very difficult couple of decades in Haiti obviously. So in some ways maybe some of that can get recovered. I mean I think a lot of people… You know it’s such a massive tragedy and the loss of life is so tremendous as well as just the loss… you know the transformation of the city. It’s hard to think… In some ways it’s really hard to see forward right now, but obviously there may be an opportunity for people to think differently about the delivery of services, about how neighborhoods are constructed and also about how those neighborhoods are organized. I mean I think as always the best-case scenario will be if there is a real kind of collaboration with grassroots, with people in communities themselves who can kind of express and find their aspirations and voice their aspirations in the project of rebuilding so that the communities that they have are the kinds of communities they want to live in. Obviously there has been a problem with basic services in a lot of neighborhoods in ****. If that could be addressed in reconstruction that would obviously be an incredibly helpful thing, issues about water and sewage and you know basic kind of infrastructural issues would be excellent, but there is a larger question about, you know, what role is the government going to play and how is the government going to intersect with many outside agencies that are now involved. We’ve already seen there is a great deal of confusion at times about who is doing what and those are serious questions that could really… And you know if there is debate or struggle in that way it could really undermine how much of this aide really helps you know profoundly helps the Haitian people.

Question: One commentator has argued that France should provide billions in disaster relief to Haiti as historical "reparations." Do you agree?

Laurent Dubois: I mean this is a question… Aristide actually demanded the same thing before his overthrow and there was a whole commission setup in France to study the question. You know perhaps a cynic will be maybe not surprised that they decided that they shouldn’t provide direct reparations, but they of course had a responsibility to provide aid. Although not as much as the United States, France does provide, you know, a lot of aid to Haiti and has for some time. They are very invested in particular, notably in cultural realms in Haiti. There is no doubt that might be one claim to make. At the same time, you know, Haiti is a country that has had kind of the misfortune of being colonized twice in a certain way. This is a, you know, they won independence from France and then 120 years later were then conquered by… you know, occupied by the United States. People even refer to the 1934 moment as the second independence of Haiti. You know they had to get their independence twice, but those kinds of experiences mean that while of course many people welcome and of course many elites have often worked with outsiders, there is a real sense of a question about you know what are the intentions of outsiders, what, ultimately, are they trying to do. I think there is a sense that obviously people want to have help and collaboration, but the terms upon which those relationships are worked out is very important and I do think there is a kind of **** in some ways, is that I think people to really kind of understand Haitian society and history and culture quite well as they go in and address these needs otherwise it’s very easy for there to be misunderstandings and conflicts.

Recorded on January 20, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen