An Interview with Former Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis

by Matt B. on April 15, 2010

What kinds of contributions do you think that Kennedy School students and the Harvard community more generally can make to Haiti right now, both for the country’s recovery in the short term and for its development in the long term?

In the short term, I think it would be interesting to propose field studies to the students. We need skills, we need competence – that we don’t always have – and it would be important if students here, who are acquiring knowledge in different fields, can come, let’s say, during the summer or when they have a break and participate in some projects, whether it be in health, in education, in environment, in reconstruction – housing, or infrastructure. There are going to be a lot of opportunities and at the same time there is a lack of resources at home in all these different fields.

We, on our side in Haiti, have to work on the framework of the projects, so that when they come, they know that they are going to be of use…and there’s not going to be any waste.

In the long run, perhaps more structural projects can come along.  Also what the university here could do that would be very interesting – because all the universities in Port-au-Prince, where there’s a concentration of higher ed buildings, have been destroyed – is to set up with universities in Haiti some kind of distance learning program, especially in the scientific fields where we have a large deficit.

Also, I know that it’s very difficult for US universities in general to raise funds for the reconstruction of physical buildings, but they can perhaps find grants that can help us to set up labs, computer labs, scientific labs, even if they are small. That can be extremely helpful to students in Haiti, whether in Port-au-Prince or in other parts of the country, because I also believe now is the time for decentralization.

And then, of course, the field studies – that can be helpful to us, but also to the university, for research or development of models that can eventually be applied in Haiti. The university will also be part of the reconstruction process.

Thank you. I’d like to return to that in a moment, but first, I’d like to step back a bit. As you know, the US and Haiti have a very complicated historical relationship. Do you feel like Americans have an accurate picture of that history? And if not, what would you like to share?

That’s a very good question, you know. While I’m here, I’m working on a keynote speech that I’m going to give at John Carter Brown Library at Brown University on May 7, and this is exactly what I’m working on. They wanted a more specific subject, so I chose the trade relationship between the US and Haiti which started even before independence – before the US independence and during Haiti’s colonial time.

I went back to my history books and I am learning a lot. It’s a fascinating history, really, because it started early in the 16th century, and it’s so complex. But I don’t want to say too much now, and will come back to your question.

I think there are too many clichés about Haiti, too many stereotypes, and there’s a need, first and foremost for us, Haitians, to explain more the complexity of our country, the paradox that we live in, and to project a better image of Haiti. To me, the US – I’m talking about the government now – has an unchanged image of the country. It’s as if the Haiti of the time the US occupied Haiti from 1915-1939 has not really evolved. The policies that were applied then are barely reviewed and re-adapted, but they hardly take into consideration the complexity of today’s world.

There is a need for us to better explain our situation, and find relays like the US universities to convey the truth about the country. That will help to better explain the role the US can play in trying to help us come out of today’s catastrophic situation.

A lot of aid flowed into Haiti in the wake of the earthquake.  Some observers are concerned what while lots of aid is focused on immediate humanitarian needs, not enough has been earmarked for long term or structural development and government capacity-building.  Is the aid going to the right places? And if not, where should it be going?

When you look at a post-disaster situation, there is first the relief effort, the relief phase. You have to bring food, water, medicine to help the survivors. Today, it’s dramatic. We have one million people in the streets. They’ve lost everything they had. The relief effort is an important phase, but it is taking too long.

There are a lot of complaints on the part of the Haitian people.  It’s not so much because there is not enough supply; it’s because the distribution is not coordinated, not properly coordinated. That’s also the responsibility of Haitians and that of the Haitian government.  But the government seemed to have been in such a state of shock that it did not show any capacity to respond to the population’s needs at that particular time.

We had to take care of the dead; it’s true. We had to mourn our dead. We still have to go through the grieving process. But at the same time, we have to continue to save lives. And I think the lack of coordination is probably one factor that was most visible at the time.

Now, your question also had a very important aspect. Haiti will not develop with humanitarian aid. Haiti will develop with investment – investments that create jobs, jobs in the formal sector. And that’s not the type of jobs that are created now. Because there is so much to do after a disaster of such magnitude, the jobs being created are temporary – which is good in terms of giving people revenues right away so that they can get by – but at the same time they are not durable, sustainable in the long run. On the other hand, there has to be some coherence between what is being done for immediate relief and the long-term reconstruction process.

The long term has to do with investment – public and private investments, in infrastructure, in ports, in airports, housing, water, electricity, agribusiness etc. We have 1,800 kilometers of coast and we only have three ports.  Look at what is happening now. The port of Port-au-Prince collapsed and there is only one international airport, with one runway, no taxi ways. That’s why the 82nd US Airborne came in and said, “Hey, there is going to be a disaster”. They took command.  Within hours, we passed from having 10-12 flights a day to a hundred. And we were not at all ready to have that type of air traffic.

The German Public Policy Institute has argued that much of the perception that has shaped the international response has underestimated Haiti’s government capacity that was already in place – that there’s this oversimplified notion of Haiti as a failed state.

It is probably true, but we still have to reinforce the institutions. The government role is essential but we have to build local capacities. It can only be done through our acceptance of technical support, of technical assistance. It’s true for the justice system. It is true for the public works system, the education and health system.

So we should be open. That’s also one area where the Haitian-American students can be very helpful. They can have internships in the ministries and be helpful in different areas. We need to review some of our policies. It’s true. But sometimes, we have very good policies and have no way to implement them because we don’t have the administrators who are competent enough, that have the skills to implement those policies.

Women and girls remain deeply vulnerable in the wake of the earthquake. What can the government, NGOs, or other organizations do to ensure their safety, particularly against the threat of rape in tent cities and elsewhere?

There have been a lot of rapes in the camps and they’ve been recorded even by institutions like CARE. Four major women’s organizations have created a forum mostly for advocacy on violence against women. They have also created a clinic for women victims of rape, sexual harassment and other types of violence where they are given medical and psychological care.  In that process, they also document the cases so that they can eventually bring the cases to court.

The forum’s advocacy campaign convinced the Haitian Parliament to adopt two new laws: one on adultery – because it was very discriminatory against women – so there’s more equity towards women; and then the law on rape, because rape was not a crime in Haiti.  The women’s organizations have been working a lot since the earthquake, going to camps, registering the cases, and also helping with the psychologists they have working for them. These women’s groups are doing a very good job, and they try to work as closely as possible with the Ministry of Women’s Rights, so that the government is engaged also in that process.

Haiti’s a deeply religious country. Can you talk a little about the role that faith institutions and faith traditions have played in Haitians’ response to the earthquake?

I think the churches were really hit hard by the earthquake.  Usually in a situation like this, the voice of the Catholic Church, the Methodist Church or the Episcopalian Church would have been heard right after, because they have a huge constituency in the country and have played, and continue to play such an important role in Haiti. Lots of people are wondering why they remained so silent.

The Catholic Church has paid a high price. The cathedral and practically all the churches in the capital have been destroyed. The archbishop died under the rubble. Lots of priests and an incredible number of nuns and parishioners died when the churches collapsed.  So it’s a huge, huge disaster to the Catholic Church. Moreover, a lot of Catholic schools also collapsed and many students died in those schools.

I had at least three meetings with the Nuncio, the diplomatic representative of the Vatican, since the earthquake and the last one was with the Cardinal of Boston who was visiting Haiti a few weeks ago. The Catholic Church says that its priority is to rebuild the Catholic schools. But at the same time, they need to know what the government’s reconstruction plan is.  Now, the Episcopalians also lost a lot. They had a beautiful cathedral with murals from the most prominent Haitian painters, as well as a school for the handicapped and a music school, all of which collapsed.

All this said, people are praying a lot, in the streets, in the public places, on the rubbles, you can hear the prayers, the chants, and the cries sometimes.  They also go to the Vodou temples. Some [commentators] from some Protestant sects have tried to imply that Haiti and Haitians are paying for their wrongdoings. But of course, that has nothing to do with reality. In fact, a lot of us were upset with this kind of interpretation of a natural phenomenon and with this idea of blaming the victim.

Thank you very much for your time.

Thank you to you. I hope it was useful.

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