Rebuilding Haiti transparently

Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A14

THE MASSIVE international response to Haiti's earthquake has brought more than $2 billion in aid to the stricken Caribbean nation, by the United Nations' reckoning. That's a stunning figure, but it comes with a giant asterisk: So far, the vast majority of the aid, more than 85 percent, has been earmarked or promised but not yet delivered or disbursed.

That's not as shocking as it may sound; after all, channeling $2 billion into a country as poor and broken as Haiti takes time, and if done too quickly it might cause new problems. Still, there is a cautionary tale worth considering even as development experts and the world's rich countries debate how to rebuild Haiti. Unless there is an effective mechanism for raising, coordinating and disbursing aid, arguing over spending priorities and approaches will be a waste of time.

The cost of rebuilding Haiti will be enormous, possibly beyond $10 billion. A major international donors' conference, set for next month at the United Nations, is expected to produce a funding target attached to a rebuilding blueprint. The actual dollar figure will grab the headlines but may be less important than ensuring that donor countries and institutions make good on their pledges.

The U.N. conference will be the third such meeting of Haiti donors in less than four years. The last one, which took place last April after devastating hurricanes and tropical storms, was not an unalloyed success. Of $402 million pledged by multilateral organizations and major donors -- less than half what Haiti requested -- just $72 million has been given out so far, and most of that has just gone to plug holes in Haiti's budget. The remainder, more than 80 percent of the amount promised, has been earmarked but so far not spent, or is simply pending, awaiting reports, reviews or approvals from various boards, governments, agencies and legislatures in the United States, the European Union, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Japan and elsewhere.

None of this, sad to say, is unusual, and some of it hinges on Haiti's government, which even before the earthquake was not a model of efficiency. Typically, the disbursement window for such investment projects is four to seven years. Borrowing from the American lexicon, one aid expert told us that in Haiti, there is no such thing as a shovel-ready project. It did not help that Haiti's prime minister was summarily dismissed by the Haitian Senate last fall in a rancorous all-night session.

After January's devastating earthquake, there must be no repeating the lack of urgency that has marked the international response to Haiti's previous calamities. One way to ease the flow of aid would be to establish a multi-donor trust fund, modeled on the one that collected nearly $1 billion for the reconstruction of Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 Asian tsunami. The trust fund could hold donors' feet to the fire to make them meet their funding commitments; act as the main international coordinator for projects with Haiti's government; ensure transparency and accountability once the projects are underway; and monitor results. Rebuilding Haiti will be a long-term enterprise. Better to tackle it with a streamlined mechanism in place from the beginning.

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