Peter A. Coclanis: Haiti Needs to Be Built, Not Rebuilt

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Coclanis is a professor of history and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.]

In our haste to help Haiti, we need to resist the kind of sloppy thinking that can lead to false assumptions and overly optimistic plans. The recent call by International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn for a "Marshall Plan" for Haiti, which is now being echoed by many others, is a case in point...

The Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Plan, was a U.S. policy that spent tremendous sums of money rebuilding war-torn Europe between 1948 and 1952. Popularly identified with Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the plan was largely developed by talented State Department officials, such as George F. Kennan and William L. Clayton. It had several goals, including providing relief to the poor, promoting economic development, and preventing a communist upsurge in Western and Southern Europe.

The U.S. and other nations distributed more than $13 billion—equivalent to more than $97 billion in 2008 dollars—to 17 nations. Some of the countries that received aid were historically poor: Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Turkey, for example. Most, however, were already developed countries that were simply reeling from World War II—such as Austria, Denmark, France, Western Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

In many cases, factories, city centers and infrastructure were bombed out. In others, residents had fled ahead of the fighting or mobilized in response to the war. Heavy investment was required to restart the economies of these countries.

The Marshall Plan succeeded in helping to usher in the European "economic miracle" of the 1950s. But it did so, according to most historians, because the bulk of the aid went to developed nations that merely needed an economic jump start....

The situation in Haiti today is vastly different than that of postwar Europe and Japan. Haiti is an economically exhausted place, as it was on the eve of the Jan. 12 earthquake. Its economic problems are not akin to those facing Europe or Japan in 1948, and what is required to put Haiti on sound economic footing is much different....

Haiti is by far the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere... Realistically, building an economic base for Haiti will take generations.

Before the quake there were more than 10,000 nongovernmental organizations in Haiti feeding the poor, providing health services and much more. This fact alone should give the world pause. Haiti doesn't need to be rebuilt. It needs to be built from the ground up.
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Stephen Irving Schwab - 2/5/2010

I totally agree with Professor Coclanis. The need to start building Haiti is urgent. Ironically, this is the first time that the outside world is focused in a positive way on Haiti and tragically it took a major earthquake for this to happen. This moment of world-wide sympathy must be seized quickly or it will pass and Haiti will persist as one of the world's worst basket-cases. Haitians are just as bright and willing to seize opportunities as any people elsewhere, but before now they have never been given a fighting chance. President Obama and other leaders, especially Brazilian President Lula da Silva, should make building Haiti a top priority. The need to begin is now. If homeless Haitians aren't under shelter before the rainy season begins in May, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, more will die of pneumonia and other diseases of exposure.