Monday, March 29, 2010;
IN THE HAITIAN capital of Port-au-Prince, hundreds of sick and injured people who should be in hospital beds are instead stranded in tents outside the main city hospital, which is broken from the Jan. 12 earthquake. A recent visitor described mothers waving the flies from their premature babies' faces in another tent serving as a makeshift maternity ward. Tens of thousands of homeless people remain camped in the city's streets, where torrential spring rains are starting to turn squatter camps into mud pits. In the camps, sexual predators prey on women at night, when U.N. troops are loath to patrol.
After an initial post-quake surge of sympathy and media attention, the world has shifted its gaze away from the wretchedness of Haiti. But the needs are still dire, and Haiti's ability to address them remains extremely limited. That should lend a sense of urgency to a major multinational donors conference set for Wednesday at the United Nations.
The immediate goal is to seek pledges of $3.9 billion over the next two years. Of that, the Obama administration is proposing to contribute about $1 billion. The exact dollar figures and timeline are less important than setting clear priorities, establishing structures to fund them transparently and making it unambiguous that international help for Haiti in the wake of January's calamity will be sustained in the long term.
An immediate focus must be alleviating the misery of those left homeless by the quake. That means swiftly building modest homes and channeling funds into agriculture, rural jobs and development projects that will encourage those displaced from the capital to remain in the provinces.
The Haitian government of President René Préval has been admirably lucid in emphasizing the importance of reviving the countryside. But on their own, the government and its institutions, which were barely effective before the quake, are little more than a shell now. So a main concern of international aid must be to build up ministries so that the basic functions of government -- collecting taxes, establishing land ownership, organizing elections -- can be carried out. At the moment, all of that is beyond the government's capacity.
The Haitian government can help itself by redoubling its commitment to transparent and accountable financial management and institutions. Mr. Préval was reticent on that point in a visit to Washington this month, but other Haitian officials have since begun to address it forthrightly, which is a hopeful sign.
It's also hopeful that the government has agreed to a new agency that would be co-chaired by Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and former U.S. president Bill Clinton and would oversee the disbursement of international funds. The details of the agency are not ironed out, but it's thought that it would be staffed by international experts in recovery and reconstruction as well as qualified Haitians. It should create an online mechanism for Haitians, donors and other interested parties to track the status of aid projects and funds in real time. That would follow a model used to good effect in Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami.
There is much talk of the importance of "getting Haiti right" after so many years of squandered and ineffectual aid and the afflictions of natural disasters and poor governance. For the time being, it's more important simply to get Haiti upright, which means continuing to focus resources now on the neediest -- the homeless, the sick and the hungry.