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In U.S. plan for Haiti, rebuilding government is key

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An internal Obama administration assessment concludes that the U.S. government has provided $4 billion in aid to Haiti since 1990 but "struggled to demonstrate lasting impact," according to a summary of the review, which has not been publicly released.

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On Wednesday, at an international donor conference, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to outline U.S. plans to spend an additional $1 billion or so to rebuild the earthquake-devastated nation.

This time, U.S. officials say, they will do things differently.

The most dramatic change is an effort to build up Haiti's fragile government instead of working around it. In an emergency spending request sent to Congress last week, the administration said it would pay for new ministry offices. More broadly, the goal is to develop the framework of a modern state -- spending money to help Haiti create building codes, regulatory systems and anti-corruption standards. U.S. funds would be used to train and pay Haitian officials.

"We are completely focused on how to build the capacity of the Haitian government effectively," said Cheryl Mills, Clinton's chief of staff. "That is something everyone has recognized as being one of the failures of aid in the past."

For the U.S. government, which spent billions of dollars on nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Haiti presents a new and complex test. Even before the Jan. 12 earthquake, the country's government was dysfunctional and notoriously corrupt. Now, all but one of its ministries are in ruins. Nearly 17 percent of Haiti's civil servants died in the disaster, including many senior managers, according to the aid request to Congress. The Obama administration insists that its plan will help the Haitian government with its own priorities -- not impose a U.S. vision. Under the emerging plans, U.S. aid would be part of a vast international effort to rebuild parts of the Haitian state. Canada and France, for example, would help reconstruct the school system, officials said.

'Republic of NGOs'

Foreign donors have tried to lift Haiti from poverty before, with paltry results. Even before the earthquake, which shattered the economy, about three-quarters of the people in the Maryland-sized island country lived on less than $2 a day. Haiti has remained in poverty partly because of a history of brutal rulers, foreign intervention and natural disasters. Equally important, the country's economic and political elite have monopolized the resources of the government.

"It becomes a large cookie jar for people to benefit themselves. It doesn't have this real sense of delivering public services," said Terry F. Buss, author of "Haiti in the Balance," a book about the failure of foreign assistance.

After large sums of aid money disappeared under dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in the 1980s, foreign countries shifted their assistance to nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. That approach has backfired, development experts say. Haiti has become known as the "Republic of NGOs," with an atrophied central government and up to 10,000 private groups doling out medicine, food and services. U.S. aid has gone to large contractors that manage budgets bigger than those of Haitian ministries -- but they have produced "mixed results," according to a summary of the U.S. policy review that was obtained by The Washington Post.

Changing hands

In an interview, Mills, who led the review, said that past U.S. assistance to Haiti was dispersed over too many areas to have impact and that no strategy was in place for transition to Haitian control.

In contrast, the new U.S. plan focuses on four areas: health; agriculture; governance and security; and infrastructure, with a particular emphasis on energy. In each one, "we anticipate making investments that would strengthen the ministries," Mills said.

The plan includes several measures to keep aid from being wasted. It requests $1.5 million for an inspector general. And the U.S. government would funnel some of the money through the proposed Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, made up of Haitian authorities and representatives of donor countries and international institutions. Its projects would be overseen by an international accounting firm.

Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank, said that the government of President René Préval had made enough progress fighting corruption in recent years that the bank had tripled its direct assistance to Haiti.

De Falco, of the bank's Haiti task force, said that officials could monitor foreign aid to prevent it from being stolen. But whether it produces real development depends on the Haitian government, he said. "You can go into a country, build all the roads, electricity," de Falco said, but "if the institutional framework is not there, the rules of the game are not clear, you're not going to get the bang for the buck."


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