In the latest issue of Newsweek, President Barack Obama explains  “Why Haiti Matters,” offering reasons — from moral to pragmatic — for Americans to care about that unlucky nation. Indeed, were it possible to wave a wand and transform that hellish place into an upward-rising land of hope, health, education, enterprise and opportunity, while re-planting its ravaged hillsides, who wouldn’t?

Lacking magic wands, we have another tool — money — in limited amounts. That, combined with ingenuity and goodwill, can take care of some short term things.  Stop the dying.  Provide food, shelter and basic sanitation.  Help the Haitians to restore basic utilities and bury their dead. Repair the ports and roads enough to get commerce flowing again. So far, no arguments.

It’s when we start talking about longer-term solutions that the discussion gets clouded by preconceptions, dogmas and real world practicalities.  Sixty years after the Marshall Plan proved that foreign assistance can work, some of the time, we still find our best-meant schemes mired by bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption, and unintended consequences. Nor does any political side have a perfect recipe. If the American left has often shown itself to be treacly and naive, the right is already back to its old, cynical sneer, deriding “the failed and discredited utopian fantasy of so-called Nation Building” — an actual neoconservative mantra, up till the very month that they plunged the U.S. into the most costly, inefficient, corruption-ridden and ill-conceived nation-building exercise ever undertaken.

In contrast to Iraq, Haiti has several traits that make it seem a rather good candidate for national makeover.  It is small, nearby, desperate — and yet peaceful — enough to be a possible test case. (Our misadventure in Somalia showed how necessary the “peaceful” component is.)

On the downside, you have a near total lack of infrastructure, education or reliable civil law. Still, despite the challenges, suppose we wanted to really accomplish epochal and effective change in Haiti?  Aside from humanitarian aid, what endeavors would be most helpful over the long run?

1) Cooking. It sounds simple, even banal.  But a major driver of Haiti’s tragic deforestation is the chopping of wood for cooking fuel. For years we’ve seem efforts to offer solar cookers to people in developing nations — a worthy endeavor, but not very popular among the poor women who need to boil up the rice and bean now — without spending hours worrying about clouds.

Amore prosaic palliative might be to establish communal kitchen facilities all over the island, where families could not only get food aid, but have access to shared, gas-fired stoves and ovens to prepare it. But whatever approach is chosen, we need to be clear about one unintended consequence of food aid. Distributing uncooked rice is tantamount to killing trees.

2) Reward self organization. Infrastructure projects and jobs should flow toward those neighborhoods that manage to organize themselves to better benefit from the aid. For one thing, this is the simplest way to bypass corrupt national officials, relying instead on simple metrics, right there on the ground.  For another thing, it would leverage upon islands of enthusiasm and competence, without imposing any preconceptions upon HOW the locals organize themselves.  (See an article in the LA Times about such neighborhood committees, already in motion.)

However they do it – via communes or coops or by working with local landowners, those that remove the trash and set up kitchens and have work crews ready for labor every day, and who present a fait accompli structure that can be relied upon, those should get top priority.
The lesson would spread.

3) Empower law and civil society. Go look up the work of Hernando de Soto (not the explorer, but the radical economist-reformer). The nation of Peru instituted his plan to get the people  clear title to their land, so they can then improve or borrow against it. The resulting surge in the market economy proved that left and right could work together, when not trapped in idiotic dogma, resulting in a boom in Peru. Peru’s reform laws should be instituted in Haiti, with the one proviso that they be translated into French.

Unfotrtunately, right now is the very time when those with property rights in Port-au-Prince are most likely to be bought out, cents on the dollar, by Haiti’s own oligarchs. (See a silver lining to this, below.)

4) Take advantage of the quake. Now, with the capital city in ruins, is the time for urban planning in Port-au-Prince.

Sure, those words sound pathetically sixties-ish.  But I am not talking about utopian nit-picking, meddlesome zoning regulations or over-specifying architecture — (though there are modern alternatives to cinder-block construction that could be cheaper, faster and much more quake resistant… and this would be a good time to start setting up firms over there, trained in these alternative methods.)

No, what I mean by “urban planning” is the very basics.  Core essentials that are utterly pragmatic and that would best be done now, at the very moment that Port-au-Prince lies shattered.

As soon as people are being fed and all the children are safe, even next month, corridors and rights of way should be laid down and razed — wide swaths stretching from the port to downtown, to the airport, and to the factory zone.

Yes, superficially it sounds horrible — plowing aside the tottering shops that still stand along such broad paths.  But the benefits — to all Haitians — would be overwhelming. If done well, such corridors would allow very cheap installation of the organic elements needed by a modern city, the circulatory, pulmonary, lymphatic, nervous and other systems of a future, healthy metropolis.  I’m talking about mass transit, sewer, water, fiber-optics, gas, electricity…

ALL of these services are fantastically expensive — in nations like the U.S. — primarily due to right-of-way costs and having to insert and maintain them through already-existing streets. The actual conduits themselves (rails, sewer pipe, water pipe, optical fiber) are fairly cheap, if laid down in a linear fashion. (Commuter trolley lines can be established aboveground at first. But if the land-siting is done right, a trenched subway can go in, later, at trivial added expense.)

Combine this with the laying down of several grand boulevards and parks, and you could have the makings of a great and impressive city, rising from the ashes, drawing commerce and (even more important) proud confidence among its citizens.

Note that this needn’t be done rapaciously. e.g. imagine if the poor and displaced got shares in the soon-to-be valuable plots that front upon these new boulevards, and first-options at the resulting apartments.  Is such fairness really likely, especially in Haiti? Of course not.  Already the country’s few-dozen elite, oligarchic families are swooping in — partly to perform beneficent acts of noblesse oblige, and partly to seek opportunities within the chaos.  If my suggestion were undertaken entirely on the oligarchs’ terms, with elites owning all the utilities and boulevard frontages, excluding even the people who used to live there, it would be a travesty.

But travesties are normal for Haiti.  In this case, at least there’d be boulevards, parks, utilities, sanitation, trolleys fiber-broadband, WiFi and commerce.  The elevated people could then engage in politics — the torts and rights and wrongs — later.

Anyway, what if foreign influences leaped onto this project first, with strong intent to insert fairness as a priority? Note that a single billionaire could, right now, offer to do this in Port-au-Prince. His share, downstream, could be worth billions, without incurring any bad karma because, with just a little care to note who lived where, the chief beneficiaries would still be the poorest citizens of Haiti.

And the result… making money by increasing the value of a city that becomes a wonder and source of pride for all… would seem worth pondering.