Amid the 230,000 deaths, hundreds of thousands of injuries and incredible structural destruction revealed in the initial news reports, the inquisitive visitor is impressed by numerous elements of hope abounding from high-density tent encampments — as well as ongoing excavation and reconstruction efforts in some areas.
Beyond the delivery of basic services such as the distribution of food, water, provision of medical services and clearing trash and rubble from the street, Haiti continues to confront manifold problems, many of which predated the earthquake.
On one level, one finds a general population that demonstrates a significant work ethic and a desire to improve their lives and those of their neighbors — many of which were devastated by the earthquake.
But when one takes a broader view, one is perplexed by a nation suffering from layers of institutional dysfunction and assorted problems which remain obstacles to economic growth and progress.
Addressing these social, political and cultural imperatives will largely determine the pace and direction of reconstruction and economic development efforts and impact the lives of millions of Haitians living in poverty.
Elites control nation's wealth
For the past century and beyond, much of the land and virtually all of the nonbasic industry has been owned and strictly controlled by a few individuals and families of the mulatto elite which comprises roughly five percent of the total population. These people are largely the descendants of mixed-race marriages that occurred in the formative period of the island nation in the early 19th Century. What has emerged is a system of race-based feudalism unique to Haiti.
While this system of culturally-imposed social and economic inequality is acknowledged by most educated Haitians, it is a matter which many within the United Nations, the diplomatic community and those among the many non-governmental organizations active on the island tread lightly around because of the constraints it places upon all aspects of development.
From agricultural land reform in rural areas to the nation's potential for tourism and developing an export strategy to grow the textiles industry in urban areas, the concentrated ownership of land and resources by so very few impacts virtually every aspect of the island economy.
There is also the problem of the diaspora of millions of middle-class Haitians with college degrees and advanced technical skills who have left in search of better job prospects abroad.
They could make a significant contribution to the reconstruction effort. Many of these expatriates live in the U.S., Canada, Cuba, France and Central America. An estimated 800,000 alone live in the Dominican Republic.
These people frequently send back large sums of money to family members in Haiti, an important source of personal income which can mean the difference between living in abject poverty and living with some level of dignity.
Economists estimate these "remittances" from foreign Haitians could amount to as much as 25 percent of the total Haitian gross domestic product.
Many are reluctant to return to Haiti in the absence of better economic opportunities, political stability or an action plan which makes sense for the future of the island.
Unstable, corrupt central government
In the decades following the 30-year dictatorial brutality of the Duvalier family, Haiti's governmental structure has been chronically plagued with institutional weakness and instability. That, combined with bribery and corruption, leaves an insufficient revenue base to make major investments in the kinds of public works facilities which most Americans take for granted.
Recent history has also been impacted by two U.S military interventions sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council in 1994 and 2004, surrounding the two chaotic terms of popularly-elected Prime Minister Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1991 to 1994 and 2001 to 2004).
Wildly popular among the lower classes, Aristide was despised by the ruling elite for his unconscionable takings of private lands and properties and increased corruption within his administration.
At other times during the post-Duvalier period, there seems to exist a symbiotic relationship between corrupt governmental officials and the economic ruling elite, both of which create institutional and cultural barriers to foreign investment in textile factories, resort hotels, agribusiness and other basic industrial development badly needed for job creation.
An observer writing in a pre-earthquake International Crisis Group study "A New Chance for Haiti?" suggested "dysfunctional institutions, poor and corrupt governance, lack of transparency and pervasive crime have exacerbated economic and social instability (in Haiti) for the last decade."
One shocking comparison would seem to underscore the magnitude of the economic and income disparity problem on the island. Currently, Haiti maintains a per capita gross domestic product of roughly $400 per year. By comparison, residents of the neighboring Dominican Republic earn an average of $7,200 per year.
Some also question the level of openness maintained by Haitian government officials, 40 percent of whom perished in the earthquake. The country also maintains the lowest tariff structure in the Caribbean, exacerbating the revenue situation for the provision of public works and services.
Observers have also argued that the rapid and aggressive trade liberalization inspired by international lenders several years ago severely damaged aspects of the Haitian economy. One group frequently mentioned are rice farmers who produced for domestic consumption, but who were driven out of business by the effects of price-supported rice shipped to the island during the Bush Administration. Many of these formerly rural families were driven into urban areas, contributing to the poverty, unemployment and the public health nightmare that may unfold in the next several months during the rainy season.
In an effort to address the severe trade imbalance, President Obama on May 24 signed into law H.R. 5160, the Haiti Economic Lift Program Act of 2010. This law extends trade benefits for certain Haitian-manufactured textiles, including apparel. The intent of the law is to facilitate conditions for light manufacturing in Haiti to increase employment and prosperity in this sector.
Much of Haiti has been deforested for the global market in rare woods such as mahogany. In 1923, over 60 percent of Haiti's land was forested. Today, that figure hovers around 2 percent.
Much of the wood gathered today is converted to charcoal, which along with propane are the two primary sources of fuel for cooking. Little more than lip service has ever been given by Haitian government officials to launch a reforestation effort. An estimated 215,000 acres of topsoil is washed away each year as the result of the lands stripped by deforestation.
Electrical power is generated by the government through the use of large diesel-electric generation stations. Even in some of the most densely-populated urban areas of Port-au-Prince, Delmas and Petionvillle, electrical power is not universally available.
Government-generated power to the orphanage operated in Haiti since 1968 by The Cathedral, a Bible-centered church on Evansville's North Side, is limited to late at night after 10:30 p.m. until about 7 a.m. At other times, power is provided by a diesel generator which is expensive to operate.
Diesel fuel is also the primary motor fuel, although gasoline is also available at a substantially higher cost. The chronic instability of the domestic motor fuels market on Haiti was highlighted by a fuel shortage that occurred during my visit. A tanker which sailed from a port in Venezuela was delayed en route for some unreported reason and caused fuel supplies of the private vendors to become depleted.
With no fuel to deliver to fueling stations, the situation made for long lines, prices as high as $8 US per gallon and potentially explosive situations when employees were instructed to turn off the pumps. With loud, somewhat violent verbal exchanges, uniformed police with pump shotguns were summoned to quell several disturbances.
Trash and rubble can be found everywhere and concrete dust poses a serious air-quality threat to urban residents. Open burning of trash and the foul odors around fires were distasteful and difficult to get used to.
Educating the nation's children
Haiti has one of the lowest literacy rates in the Western Hemisphere with only 53 percent of the population being able to read.
Of an estimated 15,200 primary schools, 90 percent are private and designed after the French model of primary and secondary instruction (an estimated 4,000 schools were destroyed in the earthquake).
Only some 67 percent of Haitian children are enrolled in the primary grades, but less than 30 percent reach the sixth grade.
Secondary schools enroll some 20 percent of eligible-age children and vocational and technical education is virtually non-existent. Higher education is provided by a system of public and private universities under the responsibility of a governmental ministry of education.
Recently, the web site of Kenneth Merten, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, announced that the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has created a five-year, $2 billion plan to expand a tuition-free school system throughout Haiti.
David Coker is a resident of Evansville.