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Migration and urban governance: two fundamental and related issues in the reconstruction of the city of Port-au-Prince
Richener NOEL, April 2012

Haiti’s internal population is growing and meanwhile all the models predict that the rural exodus is going to accelerate, and thus that the population of the capital will continue to grow. It is therefore very likely that there is going to be increased pressure on space within the Port-au-Prince metropolitan region. In the current post-earthquake context, when many questions are being asked about methods and priorities, it is essential to understand that the disaster only revealed the pre-existing institutional failure of the city. As such, the authorities need to understand that the reconstruction is above all an institutional challenge.

The issue of migration came to the fore in Haiti a little after the US occupation of 1915. The process of regrouping the large properties situated in Haiti’s great plains led to the closure of numerous small family-run agricultural businesses on which a lot of landless peasants depended to make a living. This situation created a new type of rural proletariat (Dorvillier: 2010). As a consequence, an increasing number of peasants who had been dispossessed or had lost their jobs and their land, were forced to move to the Dominican Republic and Cuba. These two countries already had capitalist agro-industrial set ups which required cheap Haitian manpower to meet their food needs (Trouillot: 1986). The conditions for workers were those of maximum exploitation in sugar plantations. They have often been compared to slavery (Corten: 1972, quoted by Icart: 1997). The migrants were transported, managed and treated in a deplorable manner. This migration which took place only in the sugar cane harvest season came to be known as the “traite verte”. This mass seasonal migration caused enormous upheaval in Haitian rural areas and weakened host communities.

Under the Duvalier regime, Haitian migration intensified. Haitians left in all directions. This involved several types of migration: educational migration, permanent migration, exile, legal and illegal migration, etc. It is not easy today to establish how many Haitians and their descendants live abroad; the Ministry of Haitians living abroad estimated the number to be 4 million in 2010, that is, 3 out of every 10 Haitians.

The causes of migration. There has been very significant economic decline in rural areas. This has been the case since the 19th century, but the situation has got worse since the 1950s. Environmental degradation including soil erosion, population increase which has led to a reduction in the average space which can be cultivated per peasant farmer (less than a hectare on average per inhabitant at the end of the 20th century), the archaic nature of the techniques and means of production, land ownership problems, poor decisions or the absence of agricultural policy are among the reasons for this pauperization. Paul Moral (1950) describes peasants who live in extreme poverty where there is desperate need even for food and other essentials. Dorvillier (op. cit.) also shows us briefly the glaring contrasts between the rural and urban worlds.

The transformations which took place in the Haitian peasantry were not only economic, but also cultural and social (Faustin, 2003; Souffrant, 1995). Peasants no longer saw themselves as victims of a society marked by marginalisation, but became active in demanding education like other social categories (Ronceray, 1972). Mass migration has also been the result of a desire to escape rural isolation and to become more integrated into society.

Migration and its impacts on the city of Port-au-Prince. The illegal and excessive occupation of inappropriate spaces in the metropolitan region of Port-au-Prince, which continues to grow each day, is a symptom of a major malaise, or a major crisis, in the urbanization of the country. Due to the lack of planning or of any realism in approaching the phenomenon, the authorities and public services appear to be surprised by the negative effects of the rural exodus. The extension of the city is characterized by increased pressure on its neighbourhoods and an uncontrolled movement towards its outskirts, which has gradually created the conurbation between the different towns which surround the city of Port-au-Prince. As a consequence, the capital was affected particularly badly by the seismic tremors of 12 January 2010.

Reinforcing institutions as a means of controlling urbanisation. The weakening of city institutions has been a constant feature of the last decades, and there is a clear correlation between this and the deterioration of the situation. State and territorial institutions cannot do their jobs. The municipal authority which, as the principal body of local governance, should normally apply public policy in terms of urbanism, does not have the means to do so. Local authorities have been weakened by the operational methods of NGOs and international organizations and some central government decisions.

The massive influx of hundreds of organisations threatens to stifle the capacity for action of local authorities even more. Today, Port-au-Prince municipal authority may not learn the lessons of the disaster of 12 January so that it can reinforce itself and develop the special skills necessary to respond to crises.

Governmental action . Certain actions by the government are not coherent with the desire to reinforce institutions. Territorial institutions have become weaker and weaker in recent years while the Haitian government has created a large number of commissions and authorities in many sectors, linked to the government itself, to make up for local authorities’ lack of effectiveness.

As a consequence, municipal authorities are institutionally weak, without significant financial means, without qualified human resources, with few services or sections, etc. therefore without the means to take action. Within the authorities created, there is no territorial anchorage as their functions cover the natural and legitimate roles of municipal authorities. This situation sometimes leads to power struggles and claims and counter-claims that one or the other is responsible for failures. This has often happened, for example, between Port-au-Prince municipal authority and the Service Métropolitain de Collecte de Résidus Solides (SMCRS)...and the problem of waste collection in the metropolitan region has not been resolved.

The breaking up of the city of Port-au-Prince which began in the 1980s, whereby suburbs became communes, has not had the expected results. The creation of municipal authorities for Carrefour and Delmas in 1982 and for Tabarre and Cité-Soleil in 2003 have only increased the number of entities without having had a significant impact on the quality and effectiveness of services provided to citizens. Instead, this initiative has reduced the principal municipal authorities’ capacity for action.

Would it not make sense today to reverse this process, that is, to pool the means of the different municipal authorities? This is perhaps an option to explore. Though it would be difficult to unify all the municipal authorities in the metropolitan zone into one Port-au-Prince municipal authority, in charge of a large Port-au-Prince commune, it is nevertheless conceivable to unify their services or make them specialize in what they are good at. The Port-au-Prince municipal authority could manage refuse collection, and Delmas municipal authority could run an urbanism observatory for the metropolitan region. This is the concept of ‘inter-municipal action’ which was evoked by Caroline Gutton (Coordinator of Initiative de Développement (ID) activities in Haiti).

Providing urban management with knowledge and techniques in the domain of urban planning. The non-use of modern knowledge and techniques in urban planning is an example of the dramatic failure of urbanization in Haiti, as revealed by the disaster of 12 January. With no observatory or urbanism department, decision-makers were unable to adapt their actions in relation to the information or knowledge available about the city and in relation to predictions about how the situation was going to evolve. This clearly shows the under-development of institutions. How can supply be planned without any information about demand? The authorities involved in the urban management of Port-au-Prince cannot plan the housing, water, the urban infrastructure, etc. that might be needed as they do not know what these needs might be in five years’ time. It is for this reason that public services are not able to keep up with the building of neighbourhoods and are always taken by surprise by the negative consequences on the environment of self-occupation.

Is it not necessary to establish, within decision-making institutions, an architecture and urbanism observatory, which would produce directives? Generally, the mission of an urbanism observatory is to: audit the situation of local authorities and provide training (studies, assessments, research, training elected representatives, communication of know-how). It should also transmit and translate any questions from elected representatives about research, collect experiences from abroad and ensure that these are shared. In certain countries, interest in urban policy is such that there is a Ministry for Cities, and in others, there is a Ministry for Town and Country Planning. But this does not replace the observatories which are linked more to local authorities.

Haiti’s internal population is growing and meanwhile all the models predict that the rural exodus is going to accelerate, and thus that the population of the capital will continue to grow. It is therefore very likely that there is going to be increased pressure on space within the Port-au-Prince metropolitan region. In the current post-earthquake context, when many questions are being asked about methods and priorities, it is essential to understand that the disaster only revealed the pre-existing institutional failure of the city. As such, the authorities need to understand that the reconstruction is, above all, an institutional challenge.

Bibliography

  • Charles Daly Faustin (2003) Nouveaux Horizons de la société rurale haïtienne, Presse évangélique, Port-au-Prince, Tome I.
  • Dorvilier Fritz, Les causes de la crise de la transition démographique en Haïti : une analyse néo-institutionnelle, http://www.google.ht/url?sa=t&r... ,consulted 10 April 2010.
  • ICART Jean-Claude (1997). Négriers d’eux-mêmes, éditions CIDHCA, Montréal.
  • Trouillot Michel-Rolph. (1986). Les Racines historiques de l’État Duvaliérien, Éditions Deschamps, Port-au-Prince.
  • RONCERAY Hubert De (dir.) (1979). Sociologie du fait haïtien. Les Presses de l’Université du Québec and Les Editons de l’Action sociale, Montréal and Port-au-Prince.
  • SOUFFRANT, Claude (1995). Sociologie prospective d’Haïti. Editons CIDIHCA.