The pressing need in Haiti is for food, water, and medical care, plus assistance in re-establishing basic services like policing, power, sanitation, and telecommunications.
This kind of aid and assistance has to be the highest priority now, but many people are already looking ahead. How can Haitians get access to urban infrastructure, buildings, equipment, and the know-how that can support jobs in industries like garment assembly?
Contrary to what some have suggested, a charter city in Haiti is simply not an option at this time. A charter city can only be created through voluntary agreement. Under the current conditions, the government and people of Haiti do not have the freedom of choice required for any agreement reached now to be voluntary.
In 2004, most knowledgeable observers concluded that the crisis in Haiti met the stringent criteria required for a humanitarian military intervention. A UN dispatched a force of 7000 soldiers and 2000 police officers. It made real progress, particularly after 2006. It reduced kidnappings and established a police presence in areas where criminal gangs had been so strong that Haitian police could not enter. The UN also paid for the expansion and training of the Haitian police force.
On top of its enormous human and economic cost, the earthquake has setback these efforts at strengthening the Haitian government. The case for a foreign military presence is now much stronger. The number of foreign troops is increasing rapidly. They are likely to stay much longer.
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.
A country that is subject to a military intervention has little true freedom of action and choice. Choice affects how people feel about an agreement after it is enacted. An agreement might be hailed as a breakthrough if entered into voluntarily. But if it were imposed unilaterally, the same agreement could generate resentment, hostility, and even violent opposition. We know, for example, that there are people who would readily move to a place like the United States and follow its rules. Yet they would violently resist an attempt by the United States to impose its rules without their consent.
Even if the motivation is humanitarian, letting a military intervention morph into a long-lasting occupation in some part of a country would risk the kind of violent opposition that colonialism generated in the past. There is no reason to take this risk. We should retain the current strategy. Military interventions should involve the shortest possible duration, should be used only to establish the necessary minimum of legitimate governance, and should not impose irreversible commitments on a nation.
However, we must recognize that this strategy, by itself, will not bring good governance or rapid economic growth anytime soon. It is the strategy that has been followed in Haiti for decades, to little good effect. It is the strategy that left Haitians in a position so precarious that an earthquake killed many tens of thousands.
There is a natural complementary approach that is a much better bet than giving colonialism another chance—letting Haitians migrate somewhere with better governance and rules. This is the surest answer to the question posed in the beginning. It can give them access to the urban infrastructure, buildings, equipment, and the know-how that can support jobs in areas like garment assembly.
Competitive pressure from emigration might also speed up progress toward better governance in Haiti. Demonstrated successes for Haitians who live together in other places with better rules might offer a model for reform that people in Haiti could follow. Even then, good governance may not emerge there. But if there were places where all Haitians could go, no one would have to be trapped by this failure.
There are clear limits on the number of Haitian immigrants that nearby jurisdictions are currently prepared to accept. But if nations in the region created just two charter cities, they could accept the entire population of Haiti as residents. There are many locations close to Haiti where these new cities could be built, but for now, Haiti itself is the one place we should not consider.
Update: Andrea Marchesetti points to some interesting news in the Comments. In response to the earthquake in Haiti, Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade made an offer of land to Haitian migrants. He referred to “fertile” land, which could either mean that he anticipates rural rather than urban settlement or simply that the land would be located in the interior desert areas of the country. He also said that “Senegal is ready to offer them parcels of land – even an entire region.” At this point it is not clear how many migrants might be accommodated under this offer.
Further Update: As of Jan 2011, there is no evidence that the government of Senegal has followed through on this offer.