U.S. ambassador: Progress in Haiti is slow, but real
When I arrived in Haiti as ambassador, unemployment was rampant, the government could not provide basic services such as education and health care, and only 12 percent of the population had access to electricity. And that was in August 2009 - months before the devastating earthquake that struck the country almost one year ago.
The 35 seconds of terror that Haiti suffered on Tuesday, Jan. 12, resulted in 230,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries, left almost 2 million people homeless, decimated the economy and exacerbated many of the problems the nation already faced. Haiti also lost up to 30 percent of its civil service and all but one of its main government buildings.
As President Obama put it, it was as if the United States, "in a terrible instant, lost nearly 8 million people; or it's as if one-third of our country - 100 million Americans - suddenly had no home, no food or water."
Today, the United States remains committed to helping build a more prosperous and stable Haiti. Like many of Haiti's international partners, we are providing more than $400 million in humanitarian relief funding to lay the foundation for long-term development, along with $1.15 billion, pledged at the March 2010 donors conference, to help rebuild. Our efforts are part of an internationally coordinated reconstruction program that embraces innovation to restore Haiti's economy, which before the earthquake had experienced several consecutive years of growth.
The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, co-chaired by Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and Bill Clinton, ensures that relief and development projects are coordinated and sequenced, so we don't build any "bridges to nowhere." Member countries from Canada and Brazil to France and Venezuela, as well as member institutions such as the United Nations and the Inter-American Development Bank, are all committed to helping Haiti realize a better tomorrow. Unlike previous efforts to rebuild the country, the IHRC also includes representatives from Haiti's government, private sector and civil society.
The U.S. government is also bringing to bear the expertise of multiple agencies as we make targeted investments in agriculture and food security, infrastructure and energy projects, health care, and governance and security programs.
We have also embraced innovation. Mobile phones allowed Americans to donate to Haitian relief and recovery efforts - more than $35 million, given in $10 increments - and they will empower Haitians. Working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we are offering cash incentives to encourage competition in Haiti's private sector to bring banking services to residents through their mobile phones. This week we will award a $2.5 million prize to the first company to launch a mobile banking service.
Haitians are very entrepreneurial. Just days after the earthquake, I saw lottery booths, beauty shops and even movie theaters in the camps. And in the months since, businesses have been reopening and new ones taking shape. But most of these entrepreneurs have no means to track their money or put it somewhere safe. Mobile banking is just the beginning of innovations that could improve the lives of millions in Haiti.
We know progress is not always visible, and we understand people's frustration with the pace of reconstruction. But progress - though not as much as we need or as fast as we want - is here. The Haitian government undertook a proactive communication and flood-mitigation effort before the rainy season last year, and it led the international response to Hurricane Tomas in November. Haitian scientists in the Ministry of Public Health and Population identified cholera as soon as it appeared, and the ministry has coordinated the international response to the outbreak. An important component of this response is public health and hygiene information, and the ministry's public service announcements - often directed at children who recite them verbatim with pride whenever someone passes by - are ubiquitous on the radio.
For our part, the United States has employed 350,000 people in cash-for-work programs, which have boosted the economy. We have also invested in agricultural initiatives, helping increase crop yields by about 75 percent over the previous year's harvest in some areas. And we have been a critical player in the effort to remove rubble. The progress is incremental, but like many at the U.S. Embassy, I have seen progress each day on my way to work - ruined buildings demolished, then the areas cleared of rubble and converted into construction sites. The work continues.
Governments, multilateral organizations and the private sector are collaborating to marry development dollars and private investment to create permanent jobs. The State Department has signed two agreements with the government of Haiti, the Inter-American Development Bank and two of the world's largest garment manufacturers, from Korea, to explore the possibility of building an industrial park that would produce tens of thousands of permanent jobs and permanent housing for thousands of Haitians. During my three diplomatic assignments here, I have seen the importance of job creation for Haiti, and these kinds of agreements make me optimistic.
We face a long and difficult journey, and now we pause to mourn the dead. But we renew our commitment to the living by helping build a more prosperous and stable Haiti, and a future that its people want.
Kenneth Merten is the U.S. ambassador to Haiti.