PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haitians should seize U.N.-backed elections in November as an opportunity to build a better nation from the ruins of this year’s earthquake by taking charge of future development and shedding years of aid dependency, the top U.N. official in Haiti said.
Edmond Mulet said the Nov. 28 presidential and legislative polls to be held 10 months after the massive Jan. 12 earthquake would be a chance for Haiti to shake off its identity as a weak, unstable, poverty-ridden “Republic of NGOs” dominated by foreign aid organizations.
“We’ve had billions of dollars spent in Haiti over years with zero impact on the rule of law — that has to change,” Mulet said in an interview on Wednesday at the sprawling U.N. logistics base in the quake-ravaged Haitian capital.
As the world pumps hundreds of millions of dollars more aid into the crippled Caribbean state, Mulet said Haiti’s leaders must show the political will to break the cycle of dependency and shape and lead a viable sustainable state governed by laws that will attract investors and foster economic development.
“Nobody wants to reconstruct Haiti the way it was, we have to do it completely differently now,” Mulet said, evoking the “build back better” motto that has become the mantra of Haiti’s foreign relief partners helping in the reconstruction effort.
Mulet, a Guatemalan U.N. veteran who heads a 12,000-strong blue-helmet peacekeeping force in Haiti, said the international community, wary of chronic corruption, mismanagement and instability in Haiti, had actually contributed to weakening the government by often sidelining it from essential tasks.
“We have created these parallel structures, in education, in health services, in all sorts of responsibilities that the Haitians should be assuming themselves,” he said.
This had led to the proliferation of 10,000 foreign NGOs in Haiti, many operating without regard or accountability to the government, creating a “Republic of NGOs” that effectively excluded Haitians from running their own country.
“We, the international community, have to change the way we work in Haiti,” Mulet added.
“I really firmly believe that all the reconstruction effort, all the investments, humanitarian assistance, everything the peacekeeping mission has done for many years now, everything will be in vain unless the Haitians themselves lead in creating the rule of law in Haiti,” he said.
“We have to work with the government and through the government, with Haitian institutions, if we want to build those capacities,” said Mulet, who is Special Representative in Haiti for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“It’s building blocks, little by little ... it takes time,” he said.
Mulet rejected suggestions Haiti was not in a condition to hold successful, credible elections so soon after a huge natural disaster that killed up to 300,000 people and pole-axed what was already the Western Hemisphere’s poorest economy.
“It’s technically possible, it’s logistically possible, the security is there,” he said. With more than four million voters registered, 66 political parties participating and 19 presidential candidates standing, the ingredients were there for Haitians to democratically choose new leaders, he added.
“Without elections, what are the options? The vacuum, the instability, the breaking down of all the structures here.”
Among the major challenges that will face the new Haitian leader who will be chosen to replace President Rene Preval was rebuilding a framework of legality in Haiti to underpin the post-quake reconstruction and future growth and development.
“There is no land registry, no civil registry, no functioning courts,” Mulet said.
Foreign donors have pledged $9.9 billion for post-quake reconstruction, $5.3 billion for the next two years alone.
“You can bring money to rebuild the city, reconstruct, you can have infrastructure, build roads, airports, you can build all that, but that will not be sustainable in the mid-and long-term, if you don’t have rule of law here,” he said.
Mulet said U.N. policing before the quake helped to break up criminal gangs who were killing, kidnapping and extorting in Port-au-Prince. Some 850 jailed gangsters were among over 5,000 convicts who escaped in the chaos of the Jan. 12 quake and U.N. and Haitian police were working to stop them from regrouping.
The current U.N. peacekeeping operation has been in Haiti since 2004.
Security experts said several hundred million dollars of suspected laundered illicit drugs funds had appeared in the local banking system since January, and arms had been detected entering the country, suggesting any power vacuum could be quickly exploited by criminal or destabilizing elements.
Other major challenges included the resettlement of around 1.3 million quake homeless and establishing the conditions to foster domestic and foreign investment projects to create jobs and livelihoods for destitute survivors of the quake.
“We can’t ask those people to go back to the places they were living before, it’s impossible,” Mulet said, calling for a “re-energized” private sector.
Mulet was optimistic the U.N.-backed elections could leverage change, but warned: “Without a global rule of law in Haiti, I think we’ll have a peacekeeping mission here for many, many decades and I don’t know if the international community is willing to continue subsidizing this country forever.”
(Editing by Jackie Frank)