Can Port-au-Prince Be Saved, or Should Haiti Move the Capital?

The real question facing Haiti isn’t whether to rebuild the capital or move it inland; it’s how do you build a city that creates opportunities instead of slums?


Haiti isn’t just the world’s most pressing case of disaster recovery
following last month’s earthquake. It’s the place most in need of
some instant city-building.

Port-au-Prince–home to two million inhabitants and a fifth of Haiti’s population–is effectively leveled. The United Nations estimates 75% of the city will need to be rebuilt, with 500,000 people still sleeping in the streets. Others have moved out of the city and into emergency tents, lean-tos, and shelters. The International Organization for Migration told The New York Times last week
that it could be five years before residents move back into houses, and
that they could look forward to living in glorified “garden sheds”
until then.

So far, the debate has focused on whether displaced capital-dwellers should permanently relocate. On one hand, $2 billion dollars in aid has already been promised for the
reconstruction of the capital, and NGOs like Architecture for Humanity are on the ground organizing a construction force and teaching them to use earthquake-resistant building materials. On the other hand, Haiti’s top seismologist, Claude Prépetit,
who accurately predicted the magnitude of the January quake, believes an even stronger one will strike Haiti within 20 years. Based on a seismological map or risk, Port-au-Prince, he told Der Spiegel, will always be Haiti’s most vulnerable area. “A lot of people have to get out of here,” Prépetit says.


But get where?

Bernhard Etheart, a former professor who now runs the government’s institute for land reform, is pushing a plan to pick up and move the capital inland. Similar proposals have already made the rounds of think tanks. Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen has suggested relocating the capital to Cap Haitien, a proposal seconded by the Progressive Policy Institute. Etheart would go much further, founding a new city Der Spiegel compared to Brasilia, the remote Brazilian capital carved from the Amazonian jungle. A new capital, he says, attracts migrants from the countryside and ultimately costs the state more money. “We must invest in the country’s small cities,” he tells Der Speigel, and offer jobs, schools, hospitals, and other incentives to live there.

The longer term and more essential issue facing Haiti isn’t whether to rebuild the capital or move it inland; it’s how do you build a city that creates opportunities instead of slums.


Etheart’s argument, for one, calls attention to the debate over the size of cities in the developing world. On one side are a long line of economists from Jane Jacobs through Robert Lucas and Paul Romer, all of who studied how cities aggregate skilled workers and capital, creating a virtuous circle as they increase in size. Presuming there is work to be found, in time Dickensian slums give way to prosperous neighborhoods. “Cities don’t lure the middle class,” Jacobs wrote. “They create it.”

Philosophically opposing them are sociologists like Mike Davis, whose 2006 book Planet of Slums mounted a convincing case that cities’ escalator to the middle class had stalled across Africa and most of Asia (with the notable exception of China’s factory towns). Citing CIA statistics, he noted there were already a billion unemployed or underemployed workers in the world by 2002. Davis (and writers like The New Yorker’s George Packer) look at Port-au-Prince or Lagos and see no hints of an emerging middle class, only slums.

However well-meaning, Etheart’s proposal is worse. Scattering the capital’s most productive inhabitants to the countryside would make it even harder for Haiti to recover. In its 2009 World Development Report, the World Bank advised governments to cease efforts in halting urban migrations. The Bank’s economists had surveyed the historical data and come down decisively in Jane Jacobs’ camp. Even Etheart seems to realize he’s struggling against the human tide–his “incentives” of jobs, schools and hospitals are closer to bribes.


In the quake’s immediate aftermath, all eyes turned to Romer, who had left his full-time post at Stanford the year before to proselytize his idea of “charter cities.” A charter city is an enclave created by fiat on an empty stretched of land, governed by the (laissez-faire) rules of its charter and administered by a third party nation. Anyone can emigrate there and can leave at any time. Romer’s favorite historical example was Hong Kong, which proved to be the lodestar for China’s capitalist reforms. Last summer, Romer modestly proposed transforming the American base at Guantánamo Bay into a charter city run by Canada, with the aim of creating Cuba’s own Hong Kong.

In the days following the quake, pundits like Cowen asked whether tragedy had handed Romer his opportunity. Five days after the quake, he publicly disavowed the idea of building one in Haiti, writing on his blog: “In the current circumstances, any attempt at creating a new city in Haiti under foreign control would turn a humanitarian military intervention into a humanitarian military occupation. This approach is fraught with risks that the concept of a charter city is designed to avoid.” His commenters suggested building one in the Dominican Republic instead. (Romer seemed more intrigued by Senegal’s offer to repatriate Haitian refugees. “Senegal is ready to offer them parcels of land–even an entire region,” president Abdoulaye Wade told reporters.)


A de facto charter city is at the heart of Paul Collier’s own plan for transforming Haiti–which he delivered to the UN a full year before the quake. The Bottom Billion author had been the Secretary-General’s special representative to Haiti, and his advice was simple, if polarizing: what it needs most are sweatshops.

Unlike other desperately poor countries, Haiti has good governance and good neighbors, he explained. With a little help, it could be competitive in the global garment trade. His plan called for the creation of “export zones” around the country with donated roads and infrastructure, new privately owned-and-operated ports and power plants, and land reforms to privatize the zones.

Collier’s checklist has similarities to both Romer’s charter cities and the “smarter cities” touted by tech companies from IBM to GE to Cisco. Strip away the hardware and what you’re left with is a promise to build safer, more efficient cities in exchange for cash upfront or tolls down the road. The day after the quake, included GE in its roundup of companies “that could potentially benefit” from the rebuilding effort.


Although Cisco CEO John Chambers told me grandly last fall that his company was now advising governments on “how you use this technology to change societies,” the smarter city boosters have been quiet thus far on the subject of Haiti. One reason is money–IBM’s deals in Britain and China are for hundreds of millions of dollars, when Haiti only has $2 billion to pay for everything. The other reason is appearances–it’s a thin line between building smarter cities and profiteering.

Read more of Greg Lindsay’s The Master Plan

Images courtesy of American Red Cross.




About the author

He is the author, with John D. Kasarda, of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, which examines how and where we choose to live in an interconnected world


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