- The Washington Times - Friday, January 15, 2010

The death toll in Haiti is climbing in the aftermath of the magnitude 7 earthquake that hit the Caribbean nation Tuesday. Much of the carnage could have been avoided.

One can be forgiven for assuming that a country situated next to a geological fault line and in the middle of hurricane alley would have a well-developed set of building codes, but safety has never been a hallmark - or even an afterthought - of Haitian architecture. Cletus Springer, director of the Department of Sustainable Development at the Organization of American States in Washington, recently conducted a study on building standards in Haiti. He maintains that even a magnitude 2 earthquake would have been enough to level many Haitian structures.

It’s easy to blame poverty for the magnitude of the devastation in Haiti this week, but poverty is the result of poor governance. The island of Hispaniola provides a useful comparative laboratory in this regard, like the Korean Peninsula or the two Germanys during the Cold War. Haiti is on the western side of the island, and the eastern two-thirds make up the Dominican Republic, a functioning democracy with a relatively strong economy. The 2008 per capita income in the Dominican Republic was $8,200, making it 119th in the world. In Haiti, income was $1,300, ranking 203rd, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Satellite images of the island clearly show the divide between the two countries because of deforestation and a lackluster agricultural sector on the Haitian side.

Haiti ranked 12th on Foreign Policy magazine’s 2009 Failed States Index and came in 10th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The country has been given more than $2 billion in development aid in the past two decades, but this fortune has largely been diverted to underwrite the lifestyles of the ruling class. The infrastructure that developed societies require to function - unglamorous things like water and sewage systems, electrical infrastructure, roads and bridges, and sanitation systems - need planning, maintenance and - above all - a government that cares about and is responsive to the basic needs of the people. But as Denis Paradis, parliamentary secretary for the Canadian foreign affairs minister, said after a visit to Haiti in 2001: “If the Canadians treated their animals the way the Haitian authorities treat their citizens, they would be put in prison.”

When natural disasters occur, the United States responds swiftly with compassion, generosity and technical expertise. With justifiable pity for the suffering Haitian people, President Obama has pledged $100 million to underwrite relief efforts, in addition to private donations and military humanitarian assistance efforts. But rushing large sums of money to a location with a history of corruption and few mechanisms for accountability invites massive waste and fraud, as was illustrated in Louisiana during the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Dumping cash into a place like Haiti after a disaster is a band-aid approach for a problem that requires more serious surgery.

Mr. Obama’s relief task force should make strong efforts to ensure that aid money flowing to Haiti is used judiciously. Funds geared toward reconstruction should be made contingent on construction projects meeting reasonable building codes, and any future development aid should be tied to stringent guidelines and metrics. Developed nations must impose discipline and common sense on a country held captive by the greed and corruption of kleptocrats who don’t respect their own people. Maybe the collapse of Haiti’s presidential palace got the point across to its rulers, but that’s doubtful.