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This post is joint with Julie Walz

The surprise return of ousted dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier to Haiti has thrown more uncertainty into a country already struggling with political paralysis from the November election and a painful recovery from last year’s quake. Duvalier returned after nearly 25 years in exile and was arrested in Port au Prince for charges of corruption and embezzlement. The following day, a lawsuit was filed against him for torture and crimes against humanity. Duvalier is blamed, along with his father Francoise “Papa Doc” Duvalier, for the torture and rape of thousands –between 40,000 and 60,000 Haitians are thought to have died under their rule from 1957 – 1986. Despite this horrendous record, some young Haitians are drawn to Baby Doc, believing that he might bring some relief from the desperate conditions in which they find themselves.

Time for fresh thinking! One promising idea: let foreigners run for president. University of Chicago economist Raghuram Rajan suggests as much in this very interesting paper. Rajan examines the problems of failed states, including the repeated return to power of former warlords, which he argues causes institutions to become weaker and people to get poorer. He notes that economic power through property holdings or human capital gives people the means to hold their leaders accountable. In the absence of such distributed power, dictators reign. Rajan argues that in failed states economic growth leading to empowered citizenry is more likely if a neutral party presides. Solution: allow the electorate to chose a foreigner, who would govern for a fixed term.

Candidates could be proposed by the UN or be retired leaders from other countries; they would campaign on a platform to build the basic foundations of government and create a sustainable distribution of power. Rajan emphasizes that this is not a return to the colonial model—the external candidate (like all the others) would be on a ballot and the electorate would choose whether he/she was their best chance to escape fragility.

Haiti certainly fits the pattern that Rajan describes– a history of tumultuous elections, dictators, and military coups despite strong institutions on paper and a constitution modeled on that of the US and France. With 76% of the country living in poverty, a highly unequal distribution of income ( as measured by a Gini coefficient of 0.65), most Haitians are not confident in the ability of their government to deliver basic services. Indeed it can be said that “the economy is being held hostage by a political crisis.” Should a neutral, external party be considered to fill the leadership vacuum? The debate is complicated by the history of international involvement in Haiti, including the U.S. occupation from 1915 – 1934, U.S. involvement in restoring President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1994 and removing him in 2004, and the continuing presence of MINUSTAH (UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti) and other international bodies. Haitians are also trying to address several issues around the disputed November election and the trial and prosecution of “Baby Doc” Duvalier. But perhaps it is time to take a step back and consider a more radical solution for this troubled part of the world. Does anybody doubt that Bill Clinton would win an election in Haiti, and that he could help to put the country on its feet?

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.