As rescue workers frantically try to save Haiti's injured, comfort its newly orphaned children, and prevent full-scale riots over supplies of food and water, few have had time to ponder the country's long-term reconstruction. Yet it is during the very early days of relief efforts that the foundations for a successful—or disastrous—long-term recovery are laid. Fortunately, there is a recent example of reconstruction success to build upon. In December 2004 I was in southern Thailand when the tsunami hit, devastating not only Thailand but also Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia. With bodies piling up on beaches and shellshocked survivors searching for relatives, it seemed hard to imagine a return to anything like normalcy. Yet within a year, most of southern Thailand looked as though nothing had happened, and five years after the tsunami, even Aceh, the place hit hardest, had rebuilt its infrastructure, integrated local people in the reconstruction, and ended a decades-old civil conflict that had killed at least 15,000 people.
There are lessons here for Haiti. First, the tsunami rebuilding demonstrated the importance of getting survivors involved immediately in their own recovery. Many organizations operating in Aceh tasked survivors to handle home building, basic medical care, and other jobs. This kind of strong leadership on the ground in Aceh (and by the government in Jakarta) allowed the reconstruction to be seen as an Indonesian process, and although people in Aceh might not have been thrilled by every element of the rebuilding, they did not see it as an alien process imposed upon them by outsiders. A similar process will have to occur in Haiti. Before the earthquake, there was a large coterie of NGOs there, with many of them led by Haitian senior staff. Despite pleas by some Haitians for the U.S. to save their nation, in the long run these Haitian aid professionals will have to take charge.
Equally important is that the international community moves swiftly to ensure that speculators don't move in and buy up land, as they did in some of the hardest-hit parts of Thailand after the tsunami. Like most developing nations, Thailand had a weak system of formal land title, which left survivors vulnerable to pressure from developers seeking to buy up coastal property. Facing similar threats, Haiti should consider a short-term freeze on land sales in Port-au-Prince.
The ultimate success of the reconstruction will depend on effective collaboration among major donors. In Indonesia, many large donors in Aceh combined their assistance in one pool, reducing waste and ensuring that funding went to needs identified by the Indonesian government, not by outsiders. Backed by this coordinated donor effort, Jakarta then set up a centralized agency, based in the capital of Aceh, to oversee projects. Yet in Haiti, lack of coordination has already become a problem. European relief groups have chafed at what they see as America's dominance of the relief effort and, in particular, American control of Port-au-Prince airport. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales have accused Washington of using the earthquake as a pretext for occupying Haiti, as it did in the early 20th century. The bickering bodes poorly for a repeat of the successful post-tsunami effort.
In the long term, there is reason to hope for a political breakthrough. In Aceh, the devastation damaged the fighting capacity of insurgents battling for an independent state and created an impetus for the government and the rebels to work together on rebuilding, since neither side wanted to add to the tragic death toll. Within a year of the tsunami, rebels had given up their separatist demands and the Indonesian government had begun drawing down its forces in Aceh, paving the way for a peace deal.
Haiti might reap similar rewards in its relationship with the Dominican Republic, with which it shares the island of Hispaniola. Far wealthier than Haiti, the Dominican Republic has long feared waves of Haitian immigration, and Haitians have reacted in fury to what they have perceived as the mistreatment of migrants from Haiti to the other side of the island. But after the earthquake, crowds of Dominicans crossed into Haiti to help. In the reconstruction, the two nations could cooperate to build Haiti's infrastructure, loosen restrictions on migration, and boost trade. If they can, it might be another step in Haiti's long road to recovery.