On the first anniversary of the quake, millions of Haitians continue to live in cramped and increasingly dangerous tent cities. With a few notable exceptions, reconstruction efforts have not even begun -- and the political impasse that followed in the wake of November's inconclusive elections will doubtless cause additional delay.
I apologize for relying so heavily upon a single source, but last night's Frontline episode, The Battle for Haiti (viewable online) offers a provocative argument: Haiti's core problem is the culture of lawlessness and corruption that predated the earthquake and was made much worse by it.
The episode centers upon the approximately 4,000 prisoners -- many of them gang leaders and other hardened criminals -- who escaped from a Port au Prince prison on 12 January 2010, took refuge in the tent cities, and promptly began killing, raping, and stealing from their fellow citizens. Despite the dogged efforts of the police, capturing and re-incarcerating the prisoners isn't easy: many prison and court records were destroyed in the earthquake, the police are woefully outnumbered, the court system is slow and corrupt, and gang leaders can often buy their way out of prison.
However, it quickly becomes apparent that the escaped prisoners are but one symptom of a much deeper problem. Police chief Mario Andresol, who is leading efforts to recapture the prisoners and is consistently depicted as decent and devoted to his country, asserts that "honest people don't go into politics in Haiti" and that gangs proliferate and prosper because of their role in getting out the vote in Haiti's poorer districts. The corruption and the ever-present specter of violence discourage desperately needed foreign and domestic business investment, drive educated Haitians to emigrate to the United States and Canada, force hundreds of thousands of Haitians to live in constant fear, and lead the many non-governmental organizations working in Haiti to act independently of the government. Andresol's ultimate conclusion -- that Haiti would be better off under a benevolent strongman -- may be deeply unsettling, but it's not particularly surprising.
The Battle for Haiti notes repeatedly that, in addition to the destruction of prison and court records, pre-earthquake recordkeeping deficiencies limit the ability of the police to apprehend criminals. Even a cursory review of news reports and reports issued by non-governmental organizations active in Haiti reveals that pre- and post-earthquake records issues are impeding the recovery effort in a variety of ways:
- As The Battle for Haiti points out, the Haitian police never had the fingerprint and photographic records that enable police forces in many other countries to identify criminals without relying upon witnesses or informants.
- Tent cities persist because many land records were destroyed as a result of the earthquake; as a result, non-government organizations are reluctant to built temporary housing because they fear that landowners will reassert their ownership claims and evict newly settled inhabitants.
- Many Haitians either lost their birth certificates and other essential identity documents as a result of the earthquake or never had them to begin with -- and thus find it difficult to sit for school exams, apply for jobs, and register to vote. Worse yet, children without documents may also be exploited by people who falsely claim kinship.
Some of these problems are doubtless the result of poverty and lack of formal schooling. If you are living on less than $2.00 a day and have never attended school, traveling to a distant office to secure a birth certificate is not likely to be on your list of priorities. Some of them are directly attributable to the earthquake itself. Most Haitian government buildings collapsed on 12 January 2010, and most of the people who were responsible for creating and maintaining essential records perished died at their desks. And, of course, some of them are no doubt the result of pervasive corruption. The absence of good records makes it easier for crooked people to do crooked things, and if you're a corrupt official intent upon using your position to enrich yourself, you devote minimal effort to your official job duties.
Good recordkeeping can't overcome the myriad problems that Haiti faces, but it is an essential component of any effort to establish and uphold the rule of law. No one can compel the Haitian government to improve its recordkeeping practices, but non-government organizations such as Plan Canada have made detailed recommendations regarding issuance of birth certificates. Provided that the Haitian government -- or a segment thereof -- takes up the suggestion, the global archival and records management communities should be willing and able to step in and provide needed training and advice. We already have an Archivists Without Borders (which needs to be much larger than it is), and perhaps its time for a Records Managers Without Borders . . . .
On a more immediate note, the Haitian people still have pressing, immediate needs. Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health were active in Haiti prior to the earthquake, provide lifesaving services, and are widely recognized as having their financial priorities in order. Doctors Without Borders is currently operating eight hospitals and supporting several other health facilities and Partners In Health has developed an extensive and highly effective network of paid community health workers. If you're in a position to give, please click on the links at the top right of this page (N.B.: At present, Doctors Without Borders is accepting online donations only for its general fund, which may be used in Haiti or in another country in need. If you want to restrict your donation to its Haiti fund, donate via phone at 1-888-392-0392).