Group info

Views from the Field: In Conversation with the EU Ambassador to Haiti

More info
19 December 2016

Haiti has struggled to recover from a devastating earthquake in 2010 which exacerbated existing development challenges. Ambassador Vincent Degert discusses how development and humanitarian actors are working together to build resilience on the island in the face of continued threats. He also outlines EU support for state-sector reform and capacity development in areas from infrastructure to education.

Vincent Degert joined the EU Delegation to Haiti in 2015, following postings as Head of Delegation in Serbia and Zagreb. He was Head of the Russia Division at the European External Action Service, and has experience working on EU enlargement and regional policy issues.

Capaciyt4dev (C4D): What are the main development challenges in Haiti?

Vincent Degert (VD): Haiti has numerous challenges in terms of development. When you look at the Millennium Development Goals, Haiti is unfortunately at the bottom of the scale for all but one of the 17 indicators. Practically 60% of the population live below the poverty line, with a quarter of the population in extreme poverty. Addressing that is our main priority. 

Next is education, because if you want to give people hope, it comes above all through education. Things have improved in recent years; nearly 90% of children attend primary school. But the problem is that unfortunately 40% of these children don’t complete their primary education. The quality of teaching is also fundamental. 

Then there are all the questions of sanitation and access to water. Only 40% of the population have real access to drinking water. And connected to that are issues of cholera and endemic diseases. You need sanitation and toilets, and unfortunately 70% of the population don’t have access. 

Haiti is also in an extremely difficult development situation owing to 30 years of dictatorship under the Duvaliers, who eliminated part of the Haitian intelligentsia and forced a number of people into exile. Hence the large Haitian diaspora in France, the US, Canada and elsewhere. So that’s an element. These are some of the challenges confronting the pearl of the Antilles.

C4D: Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake in January 2010. What impact has it had on these development challenges, and how are DEVCO and ECHO, the European Commission’s Directorate-Generals for International Cooperation and Development, and for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, working together to build resilience?

VD: The trauma of the 2010 earthquake is still very much present. There were nearly 300,000 deaths and 1.5 million people displaced and injured. A lot of efforts were made, with many rounds of funding and many NGOs extremely active in the process. There are still 60,000 people living in tents and in precarious conditions. And when you know cyclone season may come… We must find more sustainable solutions for these people. 

There is also the risk of further earthquakes and possible tsunamis. The second-largest city, Cap-Haïtien, is just above a fault line. We know that if there is an earthquake, a tsunami will arrive in 20 minutes – so we will have 20 minutes to react, and we estimate that close to 100,000 people would perish if that tragedy were to happen.

Risk and disaster management is one of our top priorities. We’ve done a lot of simulation exercises with the Haitian population, and our colleagues at ECHO are investing heavily in this area. 

With ECHO, it’s more than a collaboration, because we apply the well-known principal of linking humanitarian aid and development, and that’s absolutely fundamental. Think of malnutrition: we must make sure that emergency aid doesn’t harm local production. For example, if you send in millions of tonnes of rice, and there is local rice production, you risk destabilising or destroying it. 

It’s important to always reflect when you intervene with emergency aid on the modalities of the intervention and what the long term effects will be. We try to ensure that we create a sustainable system. It’s a balance which isn’t always easy to find, but I must say I’m extremely happy because at Delegation level there is a perfect understanding between DEVCO and ECHO colleagues who work on these problems. We work together on calls for proposals, we do the programming together. The connection is optimal.

C4D: What are the daily challenges and risks for colleagues working in the delegation?




C4D: Could you tell us about the other cooperation priorities – public reform, food security, infrastructure and urban planning, and education?

VD: When we define priorities, it is never just the priorities of the EU, but those shared by the EU and the Haitian authorities. Our indicative programme has four priorities. 

The first is administrative reform - reform of the State and the public institutions. If you want to create a real development dynamic in Haiti, it’s imperative that the Haitian administration has the tools and the capacity to manage the assistance it’s given, and to manage it wisely. Haiti is currently 163rd out of 187 countries on the Transparency International index, and there are bad practices in terms of corruption. We’re supporting reform along with the International Monetary Fund ITER fund, the World Bank and other partners, and are very engaged in dialogue on public finance reform, the public markets and the Treasury.

Linked to that is reforming public administration itself. Pay scales must be transparent, declared and recognised by everyone. Recruitment programmes for each ministry must be transparent, and there need to be evaluation systems for civil servants’ performance. So a number of quite traditional tools which quite simply don’t exist today in Haiti’s administration. It’s extremely important as otherwise Haiti will always find itself in a dynamic of receiving aid and not being able to manage it appropriately. So investing in reforming the state is a necessity.

Then there is food and nutrition security.  Chronic under-nutrition is a big problem around the world, and it has grave consequences for example for pregnant or breastfeeding women and for children under five, who are at risk of stunting. In Haiti the situation is uneven; there are areas of production which are more fragile than others, so we must direct our efforts to the north and north-west of the country, and we are doing that. 

Other priorities are infrastructure and urban planning. We’ve tried for years to construct infrastructure, which I call the spine of a country - to have a road linking Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien, the second-biggest city. We’ve completed half the route, but there is still the other half, and we’ve been engaged in endless legal battles with a number of companies, including European ones, for nearly four years. I believe we can see the end of the tunnel and we will finally be able to re-contract and try to finish this road, which is vital for the economy and the country’s development.

Urban planning is a main priority for Port-au-Prince. It’s difficult as there are many partners who have to work together in a coordinated manner. We had a good experience after the 2010 earthquake in terms of reconstruction and training. We trained 1,000 “boss-masons” (master builders), as we say there, who employ safe construction techniques. We made plans for where to build, where not to build, where the danger zones are. There are laws and rules that need to be respected, and in Haiti that’s not always the case. I’d say that if there is another earthquake, we may find ourselves in a similar situation to the one we were in almost seven years ago.

Finally, education. One difficulty is that the Haitian ministry of education is considered quite weak in terms of capacity for programming and leading investments. Often the planned investment budget is never fully realised. It’s a chronic problem for Haitian ministries. We are spending well on salaries, on operating costs, but when it comes to investment costs, we don’t usually get more than 30% of what was initially budgeted. That’s a real challenge and a worry for the country’s future.  

Recently a large effort was made to record the number of teachers, because the Haitian administration didn’t know how many teachers there were in schools. Now we have delivered provisional teaching certificates, which will need to be converted into final ones after testing and training.

We are therefore supporting the development of a teacher training system, and certifications for schools so they reach minimum quality standards in terms of facilities and teaching services offered to children.

C4D: How do you work with Member States and other organisations?




C4D: How do you work regionally with other Delegations, for example the neighbouring Dominican Republic and nearby Cuba? Have you seen an impact from Cuba’s recent opening up?

VD: Haiti has a population of 10 million people; in 10 years it will be 18 million, with an unemployment rate of 40% and enormous poverty challenges. That means that unfortunately 83% of young Haitians see their future outside Haiti. That translates into high migration, and the first destination is the other side of the island – the Dominican Republic, where there is employment in catering, tourism in general, and traditional agriculture. 

In the Dominican Republic the growth rate is 7%, and that’s an economy that was more or less equivalent to Haiti 40 or 50 years ago. Today its purchasing power is seven to ten times greater than Haiti’s, so the imbalance has widened between the two parts of the island. 

There are nearly half a million Haitians in the Dominican Republic, which raises issues of how they are received, regulation and citizenship. So we are trying to develop collaborations with colleagues in the Dominican Republic. There is a binational programme with €50 million invested by the EU to promote dialogue between the two countries, develop infrastructure and projects in the field of trade.

On the other hand we have Cuba which is opening up and attracting a lot of interest. Haiti is in the middle. Is Haiti going to stay away from this dynamic of progress that the other two have? Or will Haiti be able to seize its chance, and eventually link to one or the other? You can have joint projects in tourism, even joint tourist offers on the islands. There are plenty of things that can be imagined, but this can only be done if we have real political stability and a real dynamic of confidence restored for investors.

Regionally, another of the priorities for us is clearly migration, and to avoid migration becoming a subject of controversy or confrontation between the countries.

It goes beyond the Dominican Republic, because today many Haitians look to Latin America for their future. Before, there was a sort of ‘El Dorado’ [a mythical land of riches] in Venezuela or Brazil; then it was Chile and Colombia. Some then go from Central America to another well-known ‘El Dorado’, the US. We talk about the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean, but the dangers of crossing Central America are extremely high too.

C4D: Are there lessons to be learned from other regions faced with migration challenges?

VD: We have to work hard to address the migration problem, and not to sweep it under the carpet, so to say, which we sometimes tend to do. On the contrary, we must admit there is a real difficulty and it needs to be confronted. We must look for solutions to create economic activity in Haiti which can allow people to see their future here. We spoke about education already, to have better education which is perhaps the backbone for the creation of economic activity in Haiti. We must work within our parameters, and see what is happening in other regions – what tools and creativity were used to find solutions to this challenge.

C4D: What role do you think the private sector could play? Is it difficult to attract investment?

VD: I had a discussion with the current Prime Minister on this question some months ago, and he asked us to be more patient with international aid – to continue to help countries try to get out of the vicious circle they’re in. But I asked him, what does the private sector do? Because we’re there to create infrastructure, to create a propitious environment for investment in roads and urban planning; to take care of the most vulnerable in the country; to set up professional training. But what about the Haitian private sector? It’s a big question, because there is a lot of wealth in Haiti, but I’m not always convinced that it’s fully invested in the country’s development.

When you look at the state budget, it survives largely on transfers from the Haitian diaspora and on donations from the international community. But it lacks private sector investment, and that requires trust - trust in the country’s political stability. 

Haiti is a country which imports a lot and produces and exports very little. That’s a real problem, and so we really have to focus on the issue of local production, local innovation. 

C4D: Could you share an example of a project addressing that?




Further reading & Disclaimer

Find out more about how the EU works with Haiti by visiting the EU Delegation's website. 

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

Register or log in to comment

Do more through capacity4dev