Would President Wyclef be good for Haiti?

Special guest post by Omar Parbhoo:

Over the last six years, Wyclef Jean has gone from fantasizing about becoming president in song to actually jockeying for the position.  Earlier this month, the former Fugee announced his intention to run for the top post in his home country of Haiti.  This decision has inspired a wave of criticism from several big names (including Sean Penn), but back in Haiti, support for Jean is growing – especially among the youth.  Assuming that the constitution will allow Jean to run (his long absence may preclude his candidacy), there is a real chance that he will be given the reigns to the small Caribbean nation.

Since the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince back in January, Jean has shown newfound commitment to his roots.   He has emerged as an effective ambassador for his country, raising awareness and much-needed funds through projects such as “We Are the World 25 for Haiti” and his foundation Yéle Haiti.  Jean was even on the scene following the disaster, removing dead bodies from the piles of rubble that littered the capital.  But while his dedication is commendable, his qualifications for chief executive remain dubious.

Certainly, Jean’s high-profile celebrity will help to bring in more bucks for the painfully poor nation.  He has already shown his ability to exploit his status to mobilize donors, and this advantage should not be underestimated.  As for his agenda, Jean has outlined several key issues he plans to tackle once in power.  On the top of his list is rooting out the widespread corruption that characterizes the Haitian government.  He also plans to repair the nation’s shattered infrastructure while setting up programs to lower the rampant unemployment.  Very ambitious!

Unfortunately, when scrutinized more closely, Wyclef Jean doesn’t seem like the right person to bring his plans into fruition.  Even if he can raise more money than anyone else, he’ll probably fail to use that extra cash wisely.  His egregious mishandling of Yéle Haiti funds earlier this year provides a damning forecast for how successfully he can manage Haiti’s budget.  Further, it’s doubtful that he can keep corrupt officials away from the loot, no matter how vehemently he tries.  Corruption is deeply entrenched in the country’s bureaucracy.   For an outsider with no practical or academic knowledge of the Haitian political system to break through the web is damn near impossible.  And to top it all off, Jean is fluent in neither French nor Creole, the primary languages used in the government.

When it comes to building infrastructure and reducing massive unemployment, Jean is even less prepared.  His solutions are too broad and top-down to actually work, and often reminiscent of those promulgated by Bono and Jeffery Sachs, author of The End of Poverty.  While the intentions behind “big-push” strategies like Product Red and Live 8 may be admirable, their macro-level implementation approach will fail to work in Haiti’s unique environment.  What Haitians need right now is a leader who can empower the people and facilitate those who have micro-level answers.  William Easterly, a professor at NYU who specializes in development, dubs these bottom-up innovators the “searchers”.  He argues that  searchers have a better understanding of the needs of communities and can thus apply appropriate solutions to local problems with greater accountability and transparency.  Being a relative outsider to the country, Jean not only lacks a nuanced view of the issues facing the average Haitian, but also lacks an established connection to those who do.

Wyclef Jean still has until November 28th to address his shortcomings, and has already shown some promise.  While his general approach is too broad, he has at times used his foundation to focus on small-scale issues.  And if he can surround himself with the right people (local Haitians who thoroughly understand their country), he may be able to produce a viable plan to get Haiti on the right course.  Perhaps an outside perspective is precisely what Haiti needs to break free from the established system that has failed the country repeatedly.  Haitians may ultimately decide that a fresh start is worth the gamble.  And if they chose Wyclef Jean, who am I to argue?

(Thanks Omar!)


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