Dr. Robert Maguire

Dr. Robert Maguire: Advocating Strategies to Rebalance and Rebuild Haiti

By Ann Pauley

Two days before the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January, Dr. Robert Maguire was in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, delivering an address to Haitian civil servants and policy analysts on the prospects for rebalancing Haiti. He outlined a plan to create a more balanced nation with less poverty and fewer inequities, less social and economic exclusion, greater human dignity and a commitment of Haitians and non-Haitians toward these essential humanistic goals. During his trip, he toured the newly completed campus of Haiti’s leading private university, Université Quiqueya; the university’s rector proudly showed him the well-equipped classrooms and amphitheatre. He had dinner in the Montana Hotel, chatting with waiters he had befriended over the years.

After Maguire left Haiti, the catastrophic earthquake ripped through Port-au-Prince.The university and hotel were destroyed, and most of the capital city was reduced to rubble. More than 230,000 people died, including several of Maguire’s friends and colleagues. Yet in the wake of this horrific tragedy, people were turning to Maguire for his expertise. Just days after the earthquake, he went to his office to find 63 voicemail messages: Time magazine, The New York Times, the White House, the United Nations, Voice of America, Foreign Policy magazine, “PBS NewsHour,” National Public Radio and Texas A&M University. The media, policy makers and national and international organizations were seeking his perspective on how Haiti can recover.

Maguire is an associate professor of international affairs at Trinity. He also directs the Haiti Project at Trinity and is chair of the Haiti Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace. During the 2008-09 academic year he was on sabbatical, and was a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, writing scholarly articles on Haiti and convening seminars.

“My first visit to Haiti was in 1974,” Maguire told a U.S. Senate subcommittee in testimony he presented in February. At the time, he was a graduate student at the University of Florida, earning a master’s degree in Latin American studies and participating in a summer seminar in Haiti.

“My first full day in Haiti was the day that Haiti’s national soccer team scored the incredible goal against Italy in the World Cup,” Maguire told the Senate subcommittee. “That may not mean much to Americans, but to Haitians it means everything. I have come to take this coincidence as a sign that there was bound to be some kind of unbreakable bond between Haiti and me. And that came to pass.”

Since then, Maguire has visited Haiti more than 100 times, as a U.S. government official working with the Inter-American Foundation and the U.S. Department of State, as a scholar and researcher, and as a friend of Haiti and its people. “I have traveled throughout that beautiful, if benighted, land,” Maguire said in his testimony. “I have met and broken bread with Haitians of all walks of life. I am deeply committed to helping Haiti and its people move beyond poverty and inequality.”

During the administration of former President Bill Clinton, Maguire worked as an advisor in the State Department, helping to shape U.S. policy regarding Haiti. From 1994 to 2001, he directed the Georgetown University Haiti Program. In 2001, he joined the faculty at Trinity and continued his work on Haitian issues with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. In addition to his master’s degree, Maguire earned his doctorate in geography from McGill University in Montreal.

Following the earthquake, Clinton, the United Nations’ special envoy for Haiti, called on the U.S. and international community to help Haiti “build back better.” Maguire has expanded on that theme, stressing that Haiti is a country that is out of balance, and urging that there must be a “rebalancing while building back better.”

Maguire explains that Haiti is out of balance in many ways. A major imbalance is the dramatic migration of Haitians from around the country to the already-crowded Port-au-Prince. “In the late 1970s, Haiti’s rural to urban demographic ratio was 80 percent to 20 percent,” notes Maguire. “Today it is 55 percent to 45 percent. The population of Port-au-Prince in the late 1970s was a little over 500,000 – already too many people to be adequately supported by the city’s physical infrastructure.” By 2008, the population was nearly three million. As Haitians poured into the capital city, the rest of the country was ignored, as “ports in secondary cities languished, asphalted roads disintegrated and, in some cases, were actually ripped-up, and swatches of the countryside were systematically deforested under the guise of national security or timber extraction. Haiti’s agrarian economy was neglected and small farmers were ignored as state-supported agronomists sought office jobs in the capital.”

Haiti had lost its balance in other ways, particularly in social and economic equity, and in the ability of the state to care for its citizens. By 2007, 78 percent of all Haitians – urban and rural – survived on $2.00 a day or less, while 68 percent of the total national income went to the wealthiest 20 percent of the population. During the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haitian state institutions virtually collapsed under the weight of bad governance. Haiti’s schools, universities, hospitals, transportation system and other essential infrastructures deteriorated.

Another key source of imbalance, notes Maguire, is the fact that for years, “international donors bypassed democratically elected governments in Haiti, channeling funds instead to foreign nongovernmental organizations enacting projects designed by outsiders. Their quest for domestic stability only resulted in more poverty and a progressive weakening of the state.”

Five Strategies to Rebuild Haiti
Maguire has developed five key steps to rebalancing Haiti while building back better. He had developed these strategies well before the earthquake but now sees them as essential. Maguire has written about these strategies in op-eds that he co-authored and were published by the Los Angeles Times and Canada’s The Globe and Mail. In addition, he presented these ideas in testimony before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

In an op-ed he co-authored and was published in the Christian Science Monitor, Maguire recommended that Haiti and the international community implement the following steps:

• Encourage real and meaningful decentralization. “Close to one million Haitians have already fled Port-au-Prince for towns and villages from which they originally migrated since the 1960s. But if conditions in the countryside are not improved, and quickly, these people will drift back to Port-au-Prince and rebuild as before. The Haitian government’s proposal to provide real opportunities in 200 towns and villages equipped with ‘welcome centers’ merits support. These centers will issue short-term relief, and bundle health, education, job-creation and investment services to help the rural economy take off.”

• Support the Haitian government’s efforts to establish a national civic service corps. “Building on the symbolism of the magnitude-7.0 earthquake, a 700,000-strong civic service corps could harness underutilized labor in urban and rural settings. Youth can rebuild Haiti’s infrastructure. They could also support badly needed environmental rehabilitation and serve as rapid-response units for future calamities. This is not a new idea. Provisions for civic service exist in the Haitian Constitution and local authorities have been discussing the idea since at least 2007. The idea parallels the creation of such U.S. New Deal programs as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.”

• Support the reconstitution of Haitian state institutions through accompaniment, cooperation and partnership. “Rather than replacing or bypassing public entities, donors must focus on reinforcing them as a real and visible force in the lives of Haitian citizens. Civil servants will need to be recruited and trained, and physical facilities must be literally rebuilt from the ashes. Haiti’s government deserves an outstretched hand. Since 2006, President René Préval’s administration has earned international praise and recognition for its handling of domestic affairs. An international donors’ conference in 2009 expressed enhanced confidence. Although corruption, irregular migration and narcotics trafficking remain important concerns to some governments, these gains should not be forgotten.”

• Get cash into the hands of the poor. “The key to recovery is not charity, but rather getting capital to grass-roots entrepreneurs, including small farmers. The United Nations Development Programme has already mobilized cash-for-work schemes in Port-au-Prince to positive effect. Likewise, a 10 percent increase in man-hour labor on farms could create up to 40,000 new jobs. A conditional cash transfer program would also stimulate bottom-up capitalism. Drawing on the positive experiences of Brazil and Mexico, cash support can be tied to the attendance of children in schools and clinics. Ensuring that women administer these funds is central. But these kinds of activities will only succeed if educational and health systems are upgraded and extended to rural areas.”

• Support leaders who embrace greater inclusion and enact socially responsible investment strategies. “More jobs in the manufacturing sector should be part of Haiti’s future. The easing of duties on Haitian goods will be an important driver. But if the country is really to be ‘built back better,’ industrial growth must be accompanied by free universal education and agrarian investment. At a minimum, investment in factories and assembly plants should also be aggressively decentralized beyond Port-au-Prince. Port and transportation infrastructure can be expanded in at least a dozen other coastal cities. A decentralized growth strategy will result in balanced economic growth.”

Maguire is particularly energized by the creation of a national youth service corps and it is a concept that he is championing. “The young people of Haiti could help rebuild their country,” says Maguire. “This would provide opportunities for Haiti’s youth to improve their self-esteem, contribute to the future of their country and earn money. A teenager told me that ‘young people have lost their right to dream.’ This would help Haitian youth get back their right to dream.” Clinton has expressed support for this initiative, and Maguire has discussed it with White House staff.

Maguire’s unwavering commitment to making Haiti a stronger nation can be traced back to his very first visit to Haiti, where he was inspired by the people he met. “Haitians have shown courage and resilience throughout the country’s history,” he says. “They have had to be resourceful and strong.”

He adds, “Haiti has endured colonization, a long struggle for freedom and destructive dictatorships. My interest in Haiti is to resolve these great historical wrongs. As an Irish American, I am sensitive to the injustices that my ancestors endured. While I cannot right those wrongs, I am committed to applying my skills and talents to work for greater justice, equality, human rights and opportunities for the people of Haiti.”

Maguire notes, “It’s also in the interest of the United States for Haiti to be a strong and healthy nation – otherwise, it could destabilize the Caribbean region, a region that is economically and politically important to the United States. It would be a credit to the United States if it did a better job of helping a neighboring country to fulfill its promise as a nation.”
Since the earthquake, Maguire has been interviewed by dozens of newspapers, radio stations and television news programs. One day in January he was interviewed by Voice of America television, then returned to his office to work on an op-ed and his Senate testimony. He then rushed off to a briefing at the White House for a policy discussion. He returned to campus to meet with a student and then went to class – always his first priority in the midst of a full schedule of media interviews and policy briefings.

This semester, Maguire is teaching “Introduction to International Affairs,” “Geography of Africa, Asia and the Pacific,” and “Poverty and Humanitarianism.”

One evening in his “Poverty and Humanitarianism” seminar, students are making presentations on countries experiencing great poverty and human rights issues – Sudan, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan. One student talks about a country that experienced a “CNN moment.” Maguire gently pushes the student to explain what that means, encouraging her to substantiate her presentation.

Maguire’s students are very proud of his high profile and believe that they benefit from his expertise. “It’s really awesome to see him on television and read his op-eds,” says Camille Meeks, a junior who is an international affairs major. “He brings information to class and he shares e-mails he has exchanged with people in Haiti,” she adds. “It’s a great tragedy, but it’s interesting to have someone who is really involved teaching this class.”

“I was able to attend the Senate hearing when Dr. Maguire gave his testimony and it was such an amazing experience,” says Judy Vitela, a junior who is majoring in international affairs. “I am really proud. He makes class very engaging because he can talk about real-world examples from his own experiences that relate to the theories we are learning in class.” Maguire helped her secure an internship with Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico who has advocated for an aggressive and coordinated international effort in Haiti with active leadership from the United States.

This spring, Maguire kept up a full schedule of high-level meetings and speaking engagements. He returned to the White House for a series of policy discussions and met with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff to discuss the draft of the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act of 2010. He gave the keynote address at the Diocese of Richmond’s annual parish twinning conference; more than 345 North American Catholic parishes are twinned with parishes in Haiti. He made a public presentation at Boston University, gave a guest lecture to a graduate class, and participated in a conference at the University Massachusetts Boston, “Haitians Building Haiti: Towards Transparent and Accountable Development,” where he spoke about reconstruction and the historical context. He traveled to New York to present a workshop on the civic service corps concept, and participated in the Haiti Donors’ Conference at the United Nations. Once the academic year ends, he will speak at the United Nations Association of Rochester, New York, and the World Affairs Council of Oregon in Portland.

To each presentation, to each meeting, Maguire brings with him a commitment to long-term strategies and a sense of urgency. “This is a very long-term process,” says Maguire, “yet the decisions made now and the programs put in place now will have an important bearing on whether or not Haiti will have its rebirth. It’s essential to establish key long-term steps now. I believe that my ideas can jump start Haiti and move it forward fast.” He adds, “If there is a silver lining in the deep dark cloud of Haiti’s recent catastrophe, it is that this offers all of us an opportunity to learn from mistakes and take steps that will rebalance that country so that it will move forward.”

To read Dr. Maguire’s Senate testimony, op-eds and interviews, go to: