As Haiti suffers, the world dozes

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Saturday, November 6, 2010; 6:50 PM

LEVELED BY AN EARTHQUAKE, staggered by a cholera outbreak and, now, lashed by a hurricane, Haiti remains a country in dire need of critical care and sustained aid. Instead, it has been shoved once again onto the backburner of international neglect and left to its own misery.

Rebuilding Haiti after the cataclysm of last January's earthquake was never going to be easy or quick. The Haitian government, already feeble, was decimated; 28 of the 29 ministry buildings in Port-au-Prince were destroyed. At least a third of the nation's civil servants, and an even higher percentage of senior officials, died in their offices when the afternoon quake struck. The finance minister reported for work the next day despite the fact that his school-aged son had been killed.

A muscular international relief effort, supplementing and in most cases supplanting the government, managed to save lives and furnish enough food, water, shelter and medicine to preserve a minimum living standard for perhaps 2 million homeless immediately after the quake. With the help of battalions of nonprofit relief organizations and a surge of aid from wealthy nations - including more than $1 billion in emergency aid from the United States - Haiti was stabilized to a degree and left to the grim business of combing through the rubble for its dead.

Then, in the spring, the TV crews disappeared, and so did the momentum of international spending and relief. Ironically, this took place shortly after a U.N. conference in New York where nearly 60 donor nations and multilateral organizations pledged billions of dollars to rebuild the country.

The precise dollar figure was always squishy; $5.3 billion was first promised and later adjusted to $6 billion. But even by the inexact standards of such pledges, the contrast between the self-congratulatory conference and the subsequent absence of urgency in rebuilding the Western Hemisphere's poorest, unluckiest nation is inexcusable.

Of the billions pledged at the United Nations to rebuild Haiti, barely a fifth of the total, around $1.3 billion, has been approved or dispersed by donors. In some cases - including, scandalously, in the United States - all or part of the funds has been held up by lawmakers or bureaucrats. Of the $1.15 billion Washington promised for long-term reconstruction projects, only a trickle has been received so far in Haiti.

The main problem with American reconstruction funding is that the administration and Congress have treated it as business as usual. The bill containing the funds was signed into law by President Obama on July 29; after that, it took almost two months for the State Department to devise a spending plan. Since mid-September, the staffs of at least four congressional committees and the State Department have been engaged in back-and-forth negotiations regarding the particulars of the funding - mechanisms to promote sound strategy, accounting, transparency and so on. On Thursday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that the U.S. funds would have to wait a bit longer until Congress and State could satisfy themselves that the money wouldn't be stolen or misused once it arrives in Haiti.

That's a reasonable concern given the country's lurid history of graft and President Ren Prval's own dismissive remarks, on a visit to Washington this year, about the risks of corruption. But the fact is that American officials and lawmakers have had since March to contemplate this question. Why is it being addressed only now?

The heart of the problem, in Washington and in other donor countires, is that rebuilding Haiti has been treated as a routine development task, akin to improving an irrigation system or extending rural electrification. This makes no sense given the extent of ruination, the scale of needed reconstruction and the ongoing humanitarian suffering in Haiti.

In and around Port-au-Prince, more than a million people still live in tent cities, scratching out a meager living. Throughout the capital and surrounding areas, huge piles of rubble remain unmoved, awaiting bulldozers. In addition to at least 230,000 people killed in the quake, hundreds of thousands were injured and maimed; many remain in need of medical care.

In Haiti itself, elections are planned at month's end, but that is unlikely to provide quick relief. The government's weakness remains a stumbling block for reconstruction. Lacking clear rules and records governing land ownership, the government has struggled to determine where to build new housing and where to dump mountains of debris. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commisssion, chaired by former president Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, whose job is to set spending priorities and review reconstruction projects, is severely understaffed and lacks expertise. Even if the international aid flow were much quicker than it has been, Haiti would face enormous problems.

Foot-dragging by international donors, however, only complicates the picture. In Haiti, it is impossible to draft reconstruction plans without knowing how much funding is likely to be available. Contractors who stand ready to clear debris and rebuild infrastructure and neighborhoods have been kept waiting for weeks and months as desultory donors shuffle paper or squabble.

Now is the time for Mr. Clinton, whose vigor was apparent on the campaign trail for Democrats in the midterm elections, to play a critical role for Haiti. He should set his sights on wealthy nations whose pledges to Haiti remain unfulfilled, and he should cajole them to meet their obligations. He should prompt the Haitian authorities, too, urging them to tackle the problems of land ownership, NIMBYism and strategic paralysis that have beset clearance and reconstruction efforts in Port-au-Prince.

It's worth bearing in mind that, bad as things are in Haiti, they could get worse. Despair and disillusionment may ossify. Political violence, particularly in the context of the approaching elections, is an ever-present concern. So far, there has been no rioting in the tent camps. But in the absence of jobs and tangible improvements to their devastated surroundings, how long will Haitians accept the unacceptable?


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