Haiti, the world's oldest black republic, is in desperate economic straits. Through the Agency for International Development, the United States has been trying for seven years to alleviate the suffering of the impoverished Haitian people.

But the effort has been crippled by a combination of corruption among Haitian officials, incompetence by U.S. officials in Port-au-Prince and either ignorance or indifference on the part of AID higher-ups in Washington.

As I reported last week, Haiti's financial crisis can be traced partly to rising world fuel prices and to the failure of the country's coffee crop last year. But insiders lay much of the blame on the systematic looting of the Haitian Central Bank by President Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. In particular, he has diverted to his personal use millions in International Monetary Fund credits, with the result that IMF is about ready to cut Haiti off at the loan window.

The situation is made to order for a strong, decisive U.S. aid program. I reported last January that there is a sound, selfish reason for the United States to help Haiti get back on its feet: The worse conditions become in Haiti, the greater will be the flood of poverty-stricken refugees to our shores.

But the AID program in Haiti is a fiasco. One U.S. official in Haiti complained bitterly that our assistance effort is drifting hopelessly. He told my associate Bob Sherman: "No one knows why we are here, what our interests is or what we are trying to achieve. By maintaining a large mission here we are just condoning the practices of the Duvalier government."

U.S. officials in Washington and Port-au-Prince explain that AID has never understood how to deal effectively and firmly with the Haitians. "The program needs competent, skilled, experienced, adept leadership," said one source. "Our approach is wrong. We lump Haiti together with the Latin American nations. But Haiti's culture -- its heritage -- is African, and should be approached from that perspective."

One disgusted AID official on the scene said the office he works in exists only to perpetuate itself. The AID director, he said, seeks continued funds for the same reason that some generals seek out war. "What's the point of being a general if you don't have a war?" the disgruntled official asked. "Generals keep old wars going and seek out new ones to legitimize their position."

Critics of the Haitian AID program have recently acquired a powerful ally -- Rep. Clarence Long (D-Md.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. The veteran legislator toured Haiti last month, and was appalled by what U.S. officials showed him.

"I was absolutely unimpressed with what I found there," he said. "They showed me proudly their 'appropriate technology' projects. What they showed me was a joke. They showed me three things and none of them worked. It actually looked as if they worked up the projects just to show me."

Long has recommended drastic action. He advised AID Administrator M. Peter McPherson to either get the program moving or get out of Haiti completely. "I told McPherson I was unhappy with the AID director," Long said. "We need someone with a sense of urgency, and I'm urging that they get someone with that sense . . . who is willing to do the unpopular job of doing something constructive."

Allan Furman, the Haitian AID director, has defended his performance, and predicted that the program should make great strides this year.

Long is skeptical, however. He wants the U.S. government to find a way of working with Haitian officials for quick results, or bypass them and give money to private assistance organizations. Failing that, the U.S. AID mission should be pulled out altogether, Long says.

There are "some people in the Haitian government who are sincere," Long said, "but the majority are on the take." If the Americans can't identify the honest, competent Haitian officials and work with them, we should "leave the country until they get the message," Long said. "There are billions of people around the world who need our help," he added.

In a confidential cable to Washington last January, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Henry Kimelman urged the State Department to find a way to work with the Haitians. "Unless we can continue a meaningful dialogue on basic development issues and related policies," he wrote, "there will be little or no effect in encouraging change over the longer term."

Long complained that some U.S. assistance programs may actually be hindering Haiti's economic recovery. He pointed to the food distribution programs as an example. "In the short run, the stuff we do reduces the pain, but it doesn't deal with the fundamental problem," said Long. In that respect, "we have probably done more harm than good."

What the Haitian aid program needs, other critics tell me, is recognition of its importance by the AID brass in Washington, and a hard-hitting director in Port-au-Prince who can make the Haitian officials understand that if they don't shape up, we'll ship out. Incredibly, the critics find it necessary to add that the AID director should have a fluent command of French, the official language of Haiti.

Long reports that McPherson has promised to examine the Haitian program with an eye toward major changes.

If the new AID chief is serious about making the Haitian program work, he'll have to be prepared to crack down on corruption and inefficiency in the Haitian government, wake up the AID office in Port-au-Prince, and somehow motivate the disinterested bureaucrats in Foggy Bottom. None of this wil be easy.