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Dr. Robert Maguire Presents Senate Testimony: “Reconstructing to Rebalance Haiti after the Earthquake”


Dr. Robert Maguire, associate professor of international affairs, director of the Haiti Project at Trinity and chair of the Haiti Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace presented testimony before the Subcommittee on International Development, Foreign Assistance, Economic Affairs and International Environmental Protection of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, on February 4, 2010, about rebuilding Haiti in the wake of the tragic earthquake in January. In his testimony, “Reconstructing to Rebalance Haiti after the Earthquake,” he provided an overview of the history of Haiti and its economic and political challenges over the years, and outlined recommendations for rebuilding Haiti and ensuring economic and political stability for its people.

Dr. Maguire may be reached directly at 202/884-9585, or by e-mail at

Below are excerpts from his testimony.

“Reconstructing to Rebalance Haiti after the Earthquake”
Robert Maguire, Ph.D., Trinity Washington University

Excerpts from testimony presented before the Subcommittee on International Development, Foreign Assistance, Economic Affairs and International Environmental Protection of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, February 4, 2010.

My first visit to Haiti was in 1974. My first full day in Haiti was the day that Haiti’s National Soccer Team scored the incredible goal against Italy in the World Cup. That may not mean much to Americans, but to Haitians it means everything. I have come to take this coincidence as a sign that there was bound to be some kind of unbreakable bond between Haiti and me. And that came to pass.

My most recent visit ended on January 10, 2010, two days before the earthquake. In between, I have visited Haiti more than 100 times, as a US government official working with the Inter-American Foundation and the Department of State; as a scholar and researcher, and as a friend of Haiti and its people. I have traveled throughout that beautiful, if benighted, land. I have met and broken bread with Haitians of all walks of life. I have stayed at the now-destroyed Montana Hotel. I had dinner there five days before the quake, chatting with waiters and barmen I had befriended over the years. I speak Creole. I have lost friends and colleagues in the tragedy. I am anxious to share my views and ideas with you.

In the deep darkness of the cloud cast over Haiti by the terrible tragedy of January 12 there is an opportunity for the country and its people to score another incredible goal, not so much by reconstructing or rebuilding, but by restoring a balance to achieve a nation with less poverty and inequity, improved social and economic inclusion, greater human dignity, a rehabilitated environment, stronger public institutions, and a national infrastructure for economic growth and investment. And, if that goal is to be scored, relationships between Haitians and outsiders also will have to be rebalanced toward partnership and respect of the value and aspirations of all Haiti’s people.

A Country Out-of-Balance
In the five decades that I have traveled to Haiti, I have seen the country become terribly out-of-balance. Much of this revolves around the unnatural growth of Haiti’s cities, especially in what Haitians call “the Republic of Port-au-Prince.” In the late 1970s, Haiti’s rural to urban demographic ratio was 80% to 20%. Today it is 55% to 45%. The earlier ratio reflected what had been chiefly an agrarian society since independence. The population of Port-au-Prince in the late 1970s was a little over 500,000 – already too many people to be adequately supported by the city’s physical infrastructure. By then, Haitians from the countryside had already begun trickling into the capital city as a result Dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s (1957 – 1972) quest to centralize his grip on power. Under Papa Doc, a ferocious neglect beyond PAP took place, as ports in secondary cities languished, asphalted roads disintegrated and, in some cases, were actually ripped-up, and swatches of the countryside were systematically deforested under the guise of national security or by way of timber extraction monopolies granted to Duvalier’s cronies. Small farmers were ignored as state-supported agronomists sought office jobs in the capital….

Without doubt, Haiti was seriously out-of-balance before the earthquake and Port-au-Prince was a disaster waiting to happen. Many had feared that it would come by way of a hurricane; rather the earth shook. Now, let us see how we might make a positive contribution in restoring balance to Haiti so that when, inevitably, the country is struck by another natural disaster – be it seismic or meteorological – it is less vulnerable and better able to confront and cope with the disaster.

Rebalancing to ‘Build Back Better’
Allow me to stress two points: we must be fully cognizant of past mistakes, such as those outlined above; and the key to ‘building Haiti back better’ is to work toward a more balanced nation with less poverty and inequities, less social and economic exclusion, greater human dignity, and a commitment of Haitians and non-Haitians toward these essential humanistic goals. With this, Haiti can also achieve and sustain a rehabilitated natural environment, stronger public institutions, a national infrastructure for growth and investment, and relationships between Haitians and outsiders that are based on partnership, mutual respect, and respect of the value and aspirations of all Haiti’s people.

[My] ideas and recommendations are based on not only my experience in Haiti, but on endless discussions/conversations with Haitian interlocutors. In this regard, I should add that the principal reason for my visit to Port-au-Prince in early January was to deliver an address on prospects for rebalancing Haiti. That presentation was made to an audience of 50 or so Haitian civil servants and policy analysts – some of whom I fear are no longer with us – who gathered in Port-au-Prince at a Haitian think tank. My ideas were received by them with great and at times animated interest….

Jeffry Sachs has equated factory jobs in Bangladesh with the first rung on a ladder toward greater opportunity and development. In Haiti, however, the ladder for most factory workers, in view of their survival wages juxtaposed with a constantly increasing cost of living and the absence of any public social safety net, has a single rung. Haiti’s opportunity environment will be improved considerably:

  • If investors, owners, and mangers recognize that Haiti’s workers have legitimate aspirations to improve their lives, and their honest days’ work should be means for that, and;
  • If investors, owners and managers follow that recognition with actions that demonstrate socially responsible investing and public-private partnerships that improve workers status and conditions, and;
  • If the Haitian state has the strength and resources to become and remain a positive presence in workers lives by providing services to them and their children, particularly in education, health, and safety from gangs and other criminal elements whose activities are often financed by narcotics trafficking.

If there is a silver lining in the deep dark cloud of Haiti’s recent catastrophe, it is that this offers all of us – Haitians, ‘friends of Haiti’ and those whose connection with Haiti may simply be as a bureaucrat or investor – an opportunity to learn from mistakes made in the relatively recent past and take steps that will rebalance that country so that it will move forward unequivocally toward less poverty and inequity, diminished social and economic exclusion, greater human dignity, a rehabilitated environment, stronger public institutions, and a national infrastructure for economic growth and investment.

Selected Media Interviews and Op-eds

Los Angeles Times Op-ed

NY Times Opinion Roundtable

Time Magazine Q&A

US News & World Report


Christian Science Monitor

Foreign Policy, Jan. 20

Foreign Policy, Jan. 29

PBS News Hour

NPR’s Morning Edition

NPR’s Diane Rehm Show

NPR’s Radio Times

Voice of America TV

Dr. Maguire’s September 2009 Report on Haiti for the U.S. Institute of Peace

Dr. Maguire’s profile on the U.S. Institute of Peace Website

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