Haiti reconstruction must proceed with all possible speed

Saturday, July 17, 2010

IT HAS BEEN half a year since an earthquake nearly flattened Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, killing 250,000 people and leaving 1.5 million homeless. Any critique of the relief and reconstruction efforts must begin with the magnitude of the catastrophe. Indonesia took five years to replace 139,000 houses destroyed by the December 2004 tsunami on the island of Aceh; Haiti, far poorer and more disorganized, has lost 190,000 homes. The United States still struggles with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Yet thanks to the generosity of people and governments around the world, the efforts of aid workers, and the tenacity of the Haitian people, Haiti has made it this far without the starvation, epidemics or civil unrest that many feared.

Now, though, recovery must accelerate. Only 28,000 of the displaced have found permanent shelter; some poor souls make do with lean-tos perched on a highway median strip. There are only 300 trucks working on rubble removal, a half-billion-dollar job that would take at least three years with 1,000 trucks to complete, according to some estimates. This is doubly maddening: For hundreds of thousands of unemployed Haitians, an internationally funded cleanup and rebuilding effort could be the ultimate economic stimulus. Instead, there are confounding, frustrating details at every turn: how to fit rubble-removal trucks through the narrow streets; what to do with valuables and corpses that turn up in the ruins; how to rebuild homes whose former renters need shelter but whose owners perished in the quake. All these questions and many more need answers before more grandiose ideas of a brand-new, green, wireless Haiti can be entertained.

Money is part of the problem -- of $5.3 billion in pledged long-term international aid, only about a tenth has materialized. The U.S. share, $1.15 billion, is tied up in the partisan congressional wrangling over appropriations. But the dollars couldn't be effectively spent anyway until Haiti works out bureaucratic and political bottlenecks. Almost 20 percent of the Haitian civil service was lost in the quake, along with many crucial official records, such as voter registries. Yet President René Préval made the uncertainty worse by winning authority from parliament to extend his term by three months, until May 2011, then dragging his feet about organizing an election for his successor. Pressured by the international community, Mr. Préval recently ordered voting to proceed in November. Meanwhile, he has yet to devise a strategic plan for land use, without which housing construction and rubble removal cannot begin in earnest. Three months ago, the United Nations and Haiti, following the Aceh model, established a reconstruction commission -- a kind of parallel government with an 18-month mandate to supervise internationally aided projects -- chaired by former president Bill Clinton and Haiti's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive. But it has met just once, a month ago, and has yet to hire an executive director or other senior staff.

The people of Haiti, like all people of good faith, understand that the reconstruction of their country could be the work of a generation. But they should not have to tolerate a single day of avoidable delay.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company