Best opportunity ever: the diaspora, land and public service

The highlighted green portion above, about 20,000 acres, includes Corail-Cesselesse, one of the newer camp settlements outside P-au-P central

In my periodic search for news about the most consequential issue for Haitians–right after emergency food and medicine–I came across an Ansel Herz article and as luck* would have it, a 7-year project begun pre-earthquake, to modernize Haiti’s land registry.  (Gotta love the Internets.)  What follows are highlights, particularly as they relate to the diaspora.  The big question, always: how can members of the Haitian diaspora facilitate the development of Haiti?  From my perspective, I say, prioritize.

No population relocation, urban planning, transportation planning, infrastructure design, agricultural or tourism development, environmental recovery, or investment attraction will be possible without updated cadastral information….Property taxes cannot be collected…[foreign investment] will not arrive without the security provided by a modern cadastre and land rights infrastructure….

If your thing is women’s rights and safety, you’ve gotta be about the land. If your thing is providing good medical care in Haiti, you’ve got to be about the land.  If your thing is harvesting Haitian souls for the Lord, you’ve got to be about the land.  If your thing is healthy and educated children, you’ve got to be about the land.  If your thing is alms for the poor, you’ve got to be about the land.  As far as I’m concerned, the desire to resolve land rights is the measure of a humanitarian’s genuine interest in building a sustainable Haiti. Everything else is either short-sighted or ego.

As far as the absence of large-scale investment by the diaspora that, on its own, could obliterate the much-hated “poorest country in the Western hemisphere” tag-line:

If we take the estimated 900,000 Haitians living in the United States, and calculate their aggregate income with a US$30,000 average income per capita annually, the result is US$27 billion in income, while an estimated US$1 billion of that income gets sent to Haiti as remittances.  These numbers…represent strong investment opportunities in the form of small businesses or basic acquisition of land assets, which currently cannot easily be made precisely because of land tenure insecurity.

As of the April publication of this Organization of American States report, Haiti’s central registry of 2,500 books–not digitized files–needs to be recovered from the basement rubble of the Direction Générale des Impôts (it is telling that on the Web site, “taxes” is misspelled by the same ministry meant to collect them). This office, which belongs to the Ministry of Finance and Economy headed by Ronald Baudin, registers all property transactions and titles.

There is an urgent need to recover [the buried registry] for safekeeping.  Because of the chronological archiving of the land titles in these books, it will take months and maybe years to verify their duplicity and control against fraud.

I’m of the mind that hardly anything administrative need take years, with the focused application of a plan, human bodies, computers, management and money. Nearly $10 billion over 10 years has been pledged to Haiti’s reconstruction, after all–to say nothing of the other billion and a half pouring in annually through remittances and NGOs.  The report estimates that it will cost US $8 million to sort Haiti’s land rights infrastructure (LRI) over seven years.

Could the diaspora buy a stake in the LRI budget?  Is there a way for the diaspora to facilitate the recovery (if it hasn’t already happened), review and digitization of those books?  Can members of the diaspora be subsidized–or, volunteer through Haiti’s version of AmeriCorps–to kick off this administrative work and train Haitians to take over? It’s fair to presume, as well, that the underfunded, understaffed and under-resourced ministries involved all lost people and suffered facility damage during the earthquake.

Three offices in three separate ministries cover land rights and ownership: the Office Nationale du Cadastre (ONACA) in the Ministry of Public Works, Transportation and Communications, DGI and the Centre Nationale de l’Information Géospatiale (CNIGS) in the Ministry of Planning.  According to the report, the three haven’t chatted very well over the years. The great challenge will be to integrate them post-disaster and communicate to the Haitian people, this massive undertaking to sort land ownership.

Imagine notaries and land surveyors venturing into already frazzled settler communities and getting into verbal disagreements with residents over who owns what.  This tension can be lessened and future conflict avoided if the Haitian government, assisted by the diaspora and the international NGOs, informs people throughout the post-disaster LRI process.

In essence, sorting land rights is the diaspora’s opportunity.  Members can either continue to send only piece-meal remittances to family and friends or, they can build country-wide infrastructure with a public value in the billions of dollars.

Am I crazy or is this post-earthquake moment a fantastic one for great decisions?

* It’s not luck. Word on the street is that the World Bank, where I found the .pdf of the OAS report, is trying to become more transparent.  It’s part of a global movement that should encourage social entrepreneurs who want to bring the same level of access and transparency to the Haitian government.

Click on ‘Haiti–Two Three Months Later’ for a picture tour of Camp Corail-Cesselesse.

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