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Thomas P.M. Barnett’s long view of how to revitalize Haiti

Friday, January 15, 2010

HH: As we look past this amazing crisis to what are they going to do about rebuilding the country, it occurred to me they ought to be issuing to every single person headed to Haiti, whether with the American military or one of the not for profit, non-governmental agencies, a couple of books – The Pentagon’s New Map, and Great Powers by my guest, Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett. He’s done more thinking and writing about this kind of effort than anyone else I know. Dr. Barnett, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

TPMB: Thanks for having me on, Hugh.

HH: When you look at Haiti, and after the triage is done, and the people who need immediate medical aid get whatever they can, what ought we to do down there?

TPMB: Well, as we like to break it down, and this reflects work that my company, Enterra has been doing with the Center For Excellence in disaster management and humanitarian assistance that’s been set up and running now for about a decade and a half out at Pacific Command, and tries to inculcate this kind of thinking throughout the military, we like to break it down to kind of four phases. You know, there’s the initial resistance that the community can muster in the face of disaster. And of course in Haiti, we found not much resistance. You know, the emergency response, really nothing there, not a lot of cops to deal with a substantial population, so the initial efforts to get the aid there are going to be severely hampered by that kind of stuff. The second phase you look at is the global response. By and large, we know how to do that, and we’re hampered here in terms of what we can bring in because of existing infrastructure. Beyond that, though, the key thing is how the recover unfolds, and what kind of follow up and staying power exists in terms of the international community. What happens with these disasters is a huge flood of PR, right at the beginning, a vast volume of goods, often a lot of it not appropriate, sent to relief organizations, when what they really need, and what they beg for constantly is cash. And then not a lot of staying power once the media’s glare is removed, so that you come to these situations two, three years post-disaster, and you see a lot of half-started, half-completed projects. So you don’t really get to the fourth phase, which is the one we’re most interested in pursuing following any sort of disaster, and that is how you not only make the place recover from the situation it just endured, but how you revitalize it. So it’s not just a matter of the traditional aid approach of kind of fostering sustainment, because sustainment only teaches a society or community to deal with continuity, to deal with the average day to day kind of stuff. What you really need is the kind of development that fosters resilience within the community, and that’s the kind of skills and traits and capabilities in infrastructure, both hard and soft, and political institutions, that allow a culture or community and nation to thrive and get through periods of disruption, so not just handle continuity, which you know, everybody wants to be able to do, but handle the real disruption. And if there isn’t the revitalization, because there isn’t much recovery, and you get that kind of fog of relief, and instead of developing local capacity, the aid groups stay too long, the PBO’s and NGO’s stay too long, and do too much of the recovery for the local population, you get this kind of infantilizing effect on the local population, so they don’t really get to any sort of revitalizing process. And when that happens next time around, the next disaster hits, you know, resistance really is futile then, because they can’t put up much of a struggle. So it’s really getting beyond just the immediate recovery, and thinking about what’s going to make that place resilient, able to handle this kind of disruption again and again, because Port-au-Prince sits right along that fault line. We know it’s going to happen.

HH: You know, Dr. Barnett, I was reading David Brooks this morning, and one of the reasons I called you is I sensed in his column resignation, the idea that Haiti is just Haiti…

TPMB: Right.

HH: It can never be changed. And I recall from reading Great Powers, and again, timely because it just came out in paperback, that you resist resignation. It is possible to connect the gap if you do it the right way.

TPMB: Right, and this is what we learned, my partner and boss, Steve DeAngelis, the time he spend working with the Kurds representing the U.S. government in the initial sense, but really becoming a de facto investment banker for the Kurds, and trying to attract what really gets the revitalization process, not just the recovery, but the revitalization process going following a war or life under a dictator like the Kurds suffered. That is the businessmen and the investments. But what you’ve got to understand what that kind of revitalization is. You’re not rebuilding what was there before. You’re not restoring it back to whatever pristine quality it had before the disaster. You’re creating in effect social revolution, because you’re going to connect them up to the outside world and make the place attractive enough that people are going to come there with money and create connectivity. And that’s a tough sell in Haiti. I mean, there are islands not that different from Haiti in the Caribbean that have attracted banking or gambling or tourism or whatever. Haiti’s never been able to kind of put together the plethora of attractions or conditions that gets the foreign direct investors and the businessmen there. But that’s what we learned in Kurdistan. The whole key is getting past the State Department, getting past USAID, getting past the non-governmentals, private voluntaries, the aid groups, getting to the point where people want to bring money there. And in some ways, you know, the tabula rasa sort of environment that Port-Au-Prince now faces does give them some opportunities amidst this horrific tragedy. I mean, there’s going to have to be everything rebuilt. So if you have that chance to rebuild, why not rebuild it in a way that makes it more resilient, and makes it attractive to outside investors.

HH: As I recall, one of your propositions in Great Powers is that when governments intervene, they ought to build roads, power and water systems, and the rest is really superfluous until you get those three. Am I recalling that correctly?

TPMB: Well, you always want to do kind of the basic Maslow Hierarchy of Needs approach, okay? You want to start at the bottom and make sure the basic stuff is there. You don’t want to try to overbuild the infrastructure, because you want the outside companies and investors and what not to see that as an opportunity to come in and finish that. And you really don’t want aid groups or official development aid ever involved in building something where they can’t fund the maintenance. So if they’re going to build a road but there’s no money for the maintenance, you’re almost better off not building the road until you can get somebody to come in and own that thing and maintain it over time.

HH: Now has the federal government, either at the State Department, the Pentagon, has anyone embraced this kind of thinking? Can we look for this to roll out in Haiti? Or are they still pretty much get them food and water, and then we’ll move on?

TPMB: Well, you know, we didn’t really have the disaster scenario as much in Iraq, which was the great learning ground, where the big byproduct there was the COIN strategy, the counterinsurgency stuff. There has been an effort like I described at the Center For Excellence out in Pacific Command for the last fifteen years. It will, it has received a great deal of prominence, this organization. It’s come under the direct tutelage of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Michelle Flournoy. And the plan is to make this kind of center and its knowledge available, replicate it in all the combat and commands throughout the military, because they’re coming to see this capacity, this requirement to come in and deal and really revitalize a place post-disaster, post-conflict, whatever, as being the sine qua non of obviating the requirement to go back again another five to seven years. And you look at Haiti’s history, going back a hundred years, we sent the Marines in there so many times, it’s ridiculous. So the revitalization has never happened there yet.

HH: We have 10,000 troops almost certainly going to be on the ground according to news reports today within the next 48 hours. Do you think we have a plan for how they will be most effectively deployed and used?

TPMB: The military has a plan for making, has all sorts of procedures and protocols for making certain things happen. You know, what has always been lacking has been the kind of supra-agency kind of coordination or approach, what we call the interagency process. And this may be the kind of failure to the extent that it doesn’t do everything we want it to do or feel that it should be able to do. This may be the iteration that gets us to move more aggressively on the interagency with regard to disaster relief.

HH: Well then, I will check with Steve DeAngelis next week if we can find him. But is there a person at the Center For Excellence who, you know, if the President was looking around for someone to talk to, someone that stands up in your mind?

TPMB: Absolutely, the director is General Goodman, a retired three-star, I believe the Army flag, and he does a lot of work, does a lot of appearances. I just spent the last couple of days with him in Washington discussing this subject, because they’re trying to move on it as quickly as possible.

HH: Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett, I appreciate your taking time in a busy schedule today to alert people to this, and I hope we can check in with you as the weeks go by to get your assessment of whether or not they’re doing it right.

TPMB: Very good. Take care.

HH: Thank you. The book is Great Powers: America And The World After Bush. It’s the one that prompted me to seek out Dr. Barnett. We did a seven part series on that book, an eight part series on that book last year, which is available, I think, Duane transcribed it all, it’s available on the web somewhere if you look up Hugh Hewitt and Thomas P.M. Barnett. But I’d really urge you to go to Amazon and get hold of Great Powers, especially if you’ve got any connection to the relief effort.

End of interview.

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