Conversations: Cheryl Mills

State Department's Cheryl Mills on rebuilding Haiti

Cheryl D. Mills, the State Department's point person on Haiti.
Cheryl D. Mills, the State Department's point person on Haiti. (Kevin Wolf/associated Press)
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By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010

Long before an earthquake killed 230,000 people and left 1 million homeless in Haiti, Cheryl D. Mills was riveted on our Caribbean neighbor and the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's counselor and chief of staff, Mills's portfolio truly covers everything all the time. Still, she agreed to be State's point person for the struggling nation 18 months ago.

"I feel a special connection to Haiti and the Haitian people," Mills says. "The power of Haitian heritage and the strength of the Haitian people is tremendous. And, Haiti holds a unique and rich role in the history of African Americans."

The Stanford-educated lawyer has been in Bill and Hillary Clinton's orbit for much of her career -- first as deputy general counsel of the Clinton-Gore transition in 1992, and then in the White House counsel's office. Her public debut came in 1999, when she delivered a forceful defense of President Clinton during his impeachment trial. In 2008, she worked for Hillary Clinton's campaign.

She recently returned from her seventh trip to Haiti since the earthquake.

Q It's been nearly four months since the earthquake. How's it going?

It's a challenge. . . . The multinational effort provided food for more that 3.5 million people, water for more than a million people. . . . What most people don't appreciate about Haiti is that it started in a very challenged place. So in some respects, we have seen improvement in the quality of life to a higher standard than it was before the earthquake. But that doesn't change the fact that post-earthquake, those standards don't transform someone's life to a place where we'd like to see it. . . . This is a unique opportunity to "build back better," as former president Clinton is fond of saying.

What challenges does the international community face just to get to basic levels of services before even considering economic development?

We have had a history of making investments in Haiti that haven't always been the most organized, that have not always been consistent with the goals and desires of Haiti. . . . We as donors have an obligation to organize ourselves to be consistent with what it means to have a country-led approach, consistent with the vision and goals of [the] people of Haiti. We have an obligation to ensure that aid is actually effective. It's not just about how many dollars we put in, but whether there are lives changed as a result.

Haiti has its own obligations. One is to be inclusive of all its citizens, because there are obviously a lot of privileged people in Haiti. There are also a lot of poor people in Haiti, and all of them own Haiti.

They have an obligation to be transparent. The international community expects any assistance to be used in a transparent manner so that the people of Haiti know what happened to each dollar and know what projects are supposed to come as a result. And if a project isn't delivering on its goals, they have a right to say so.

How important is Haitian governance to this process?

This process won't work without Haitian governance and leadership. . . . The U.S. government is targeting certain investments for building the strength and capacity, skills and talents of the Haitian government, as well as attracting new talent to government.

We have a set of investments we anticipate making in a number of sectors -- agriculture, energy, justice and health.

Are there any immediate plans to relocate the 750,000 people living in tent cities?

That's one of the popular misconceptions. These shelters have been constructed to last up to several years. . . . One of the real challenges we and the government of Haiti have is how to be thoughtful about the right balance. We've been trying to incentivize people to return to their homes, particularly if their homes have been adjudicated as safe. But people seek to remain in the temporary communities because, as surprising as that might seem outside of Haiti, life is better for many of them now.

Why should we care about Haiti?

I always start from [the] framework of why shouldn't we care about Haiti? It is one of our closest neighbors. It is a country we have long had a relationship with. It's a country that is closest to one of the richest markets -- our markets. It is certainly the case that we can benefit from their markets when their economy is robust and they similarly gain from us. And as a practical reality, if we can't care about one of the poorest countries in our hemisphere, I don't know how we can care about much.


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