The sad math of aid in Haiti: 6 months, 2 percent

6 months later, Haitians are still struggling to rebuild their nation after a devastating earthquake hit the country in January.
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

We're two weeks into Defense Secretary Robert Gates's new campaign for more "coordination and discipline" in the military's public statements -- and everything seems to be going according to plan.

On Monday, six months after the earthquake in Haiti that killed as many as 300,000 people, the Pentagon hosted a "Bloggers Roundtable" teleconference to release some coordinated and disciplined information about reconstruction in that country. The commander of the U.S. military's task force in Haiti and his deputies delivered some news that should satisfy Gates's wish to have only varnished information coming from the Defense Department.

"Incredible humanitarian efforts" are underway in Haiti, where "significant progress" has been made and "a great effort" has been mounted, reporters were told. "The U.S. forces here in Haiti are doing a tremendous job," said the commander, Col. Michael Borrel, and "we are doing some very tangible things here in Haiti and truly helping the people of Haiti."

And what are these incredible and tremendous things? Well, the U.S. military is building four -- count 'em, four -- schools for the Haitians. Each has two or three rooms and comes with a similar number of latrine stalls. Oh, and the work is concentrated in an area that wasn't directly affected by the earthquake.

"Are you aware of any other American units in Haiti who are helping with rubble removal or relocating people into permanent structures?" one of the participants in the teleconference asked.

"I am not," Borrel replied. "Currently, we're the only U.S. military force that is in Haiti."

This is not to belittle the efforts of Borrel and his 550 troops, who are honorably executing the mission they were assigned. But the paltry scale of the Pentagon's reconstruction endeavor -- 1.6 million people displaced and the American military is contributing a few classrooms? -- is emblematic of the international response, which seems to have stalled at about 2 percent of what it needs to be.

Only 2 percent of promised reconstruction aid has been delivered. Only 2 percent of the rubble has been cleared. And not quite 2 percent of the dislocated have been moved into housing. Others live under fraying tarps and tents in a situation that Bill Clinton, spearheading the reconstruction campaign, calls "horribly frustrating."

Obama administration officials and aid groups point out, correctly, that much of the holdup comes from the Haitian government, which had little competence even before the quake. But that doesn't diminish the human misery in Haiti, documented in the many six-months-later reports in the media.

"There are camps on median strips of roads; there are camps on very steep hills," Sam Worthington, chief executive of the aid organization InterAction, said at a Haiti conference held Monday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I've witnessed two football/soccer fields with 5,000 people living on them."

President Obama, meeting in the Oval Office on Monday with the president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernández, ignored a reporter's question about the pace of the rebuilding efforts.

In Foggy Bottom, State Department officials observed the six-month mark by briefing reporters on what spokesman P.J. Crowley called the "enormous response" to the disaster. Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, described the successful efforts to prevent starvation and large-scale disease.


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