U.S.-sponsored conference pledged billions to rebuild Haiti, but little paid out

Haitians pick up the pieces of their shattered lives after a devastating earthquake hit the impoverished nation on Jan. 12.
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010

Three months after donors at a U.S.-sponsored conference pledged more than $5.3 billion to rebuild Haiti, only a fraction of the money has been disbursed, and a special reconstruction commission has barely started to function, according to U.N. and aid officials.

U.S. lawmakers and international aid officials have expressed mounting concern about the slow recovery of the hemisphere's poorest country, where about 230,000 people died and about 2 million were displaced in January's earthquake. Despite ambitious plans to "build back better," as U.N. and U.S. officials promised, the reconstruction has been hobbled by a lack of coordination and cash and by a virtually incapacitated Haitian government, officials and experts say.

The United States has not disbursed the roughly $900 million it pledged for reconstruction this year, according to the U.N. Web site http://haitispecialenvoy.org. Although the U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions on short-term emergency aid, the rest of the funds are in a supplemental budget bill that has been held up in Congress by an unrelated dispute over state aid.

"There are worrisome signs that the rebuilding process in Haiti has stalled," said a recent report issued by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Indeed, about 180 million square feet of rubble is still piled where it sat after the Jan. 12 quake, according to U.N. estimates; only 5,000 of the 125,000 temporary shelters promised by the international community have been built.

To be sure, there have been some successes: the provision of thousands of tents, as well as clean water, food and medical care for more than 1 million people. There have been no widespread outbreaks of disease.

U.S. officials point out that a successful reconstruction after a disaster can take years. They said that it took about eight months to set up an international reconstruction commission in the Indonesian region of Aceh after the 2004 tsunami. But Indonesia's government had far more money and expertise, and its capital wasn't destroyed, experts say.

"The Haitian government is not really capable of providing the kind of leadership that is required here, unlike the Indonesian government," said Robert Perito, a Haiti specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The Haitian government, already week before the quake, lost 30 percent of its public employees in the disaster, as well as many of its buildings and sources of tax revenue, officials say.

The March 31 donors' conference at the United Nations was supposed to launch Haiti on the path to recovery. Its president, René Préval, unveiled a plan to rebuild infrastructure, decentralize jobs and establish homes away from the overcrowded capital.

A centerpiece of the plan was to be the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, known as the IHRC, which would coordinate donor aid with the Haitian government's plans and monitor for fraud. U.S. officials saw the commission, which was to be co-chaired by former president Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and staffed with technical experts, as a sort of stand-in for the shattered government.

But Préval was slow to warm to the commission, U.S. officials say, and it took weeks to get Haitian government approval and assemble a staff. The commission's board has held only one meeting, on June 17, at which it approved $31 million in projects.

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