This February, Leslie Pean, former World Bank economist and advisor to the former prime minister of Haiti, joined Tatiana Wah for a roundtable discussion on the challenges of decentralization and local development financing in Haiti. The roundtable was the second in the ongoing Haiti Dialogue Series hosted by the Haiti Research and Policy Program at the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development.
The call for decentralization in Haiti has been a part of the country’s development plans for decades, with renewed efforts after the 2010 earthquake. In conversation with Wah and the roundtable participants, Pean explored the the long legacy of actions that have centralized power in Haiti since the country’s inception that present an enormous challenge to the prospect of a vibrant and successful decentralization effort in Haiti today. Though there is a legal mandate for decentralization in the 1987 constitution, which grants certain rights, obligations and bottom-up planning mechanisms to Haiti’s communes, neither the inclusive planning process nor the increased role of local governments has been actualized. The burden of structural and historical actions of the central government continue to hinder the implementation of any true decentralization efforts today.
Despite the burden of structural and historical centralization of power by the government, the reality of the current international aid and development funds in Haiti is that most aid circumvents the government ministries at the national level. The current aid paradigm limits coherent, strategic investment around core development objectives, as the development strategies of international organizations often fail to consider, much less to incorporate, the municipal, communal, regional or national governments. Coupled with the fact that aid organizations comprise a large portion of all the service provision in Haiti, the result is severely weakened institutions that are lacking in both power and funds to enact policy and program objectives for systemic change.
Should funds be more effectively channeled through the Haitian government, a decentralized finance program could help streamline financing and reinforce the planning efforts of local governments. Pean asserted that only a small portion of the overall funds of the Haitian government is disbursed for use by local or regional authorities. Today, instead of departmental, communal or municipal governments, most government services are managed through the national ministries. As an example, the Ministry of Public Health and Population is responsible for all public clinics across the country. Accordingly, due to the shortfalls within the national ministries and their regional offices, mismanagement and inefficiencies in anticipating and addressing the needs of institutions are widespread. The quality of services provided often suffers as well.
The reliance on national rather than local institutions effectively limits the capacity of local governing bodies to implement programs or achieve development priorities within their constituencies. Though local governments can (in theory) create plans and announce development objectives, they are legally unable to implement many targeted programs to improve their area. The lack of dedicated local budgets, as well as a weak incentive structure to attract or retain skilled professionals who are capable of complex governance, is a considerable hurdle for any decentralization proposal in Haiti.
Successful cases of decentralization have been demonstrated in countries like Nigeria, Mexico, and Brazil. There, governments found ways to empower elected representatives from provinces to further development causes and champion projects as a positive use of political power. These case examples are being critically studied for their comparative value in developing a uniquely Haitian decentralization plan.
Pean’s extensive experience in the World Bank in Haiti and West Africa, as well as his work in the banking sector, with international development agencies and as an advisor to several governments in Haiti, has led to his careful consideration of local and national governance in Haiti. His latest book, soon to be published, is on the subject of decentralization in Haiti.
Melika Edquist is a program coordinator at CIESIN and a researcher with the Haiti Research and Policy Program. She conducted research in the South Department in Haiti, with a specific focus on local communications and capacity building through university partnerships.
This roundtable discussion is part of the Haiti Dialogue Series, hosted by Dr. Tatiana Wah and Alex Fischer of the Haiti Research and Policy Program. The aim of the series is to reexamine the prevailing public thought, scientific research and discourse around development in Haiti in order to create a space for innovative approaches to Haiti’s future through critical and collaborative dialogue.