Rebuilding Haiti: While a barely functioning government struggles with a huge refugee problem, the world has agreed on money and a plan to turn a “Republic of NGOs” into a state
FOR the hundreds of thousands of Haitians still living in tents or in the streets following the earthquake that devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince, on January 12th, life remains a thing of quiet anxiety. When rain falls, as it has most evenings this month, it turns ground to mud, buckles tarpaulins and bed sheets, washes possessions down slopes and creates toxic cesspools. Even when dry, the camps are hazardous. Although police have started to patrol the largest camps at night, residents still fear theft and rape, especially in unlit areas. Police have also evicted tent-dwellers from some parcels of private property, in some cases by force. Many Haitians would prefer to be somewhere else, especially by the time the hurricane season starts in June—but where?
The government has at last found a place for some of them. This month it designated a large patch of land at Corail Cesselesse, near the sea north of Port-au-Prince, where it plans to relocate up to 50,000 families. It is starting with those living in the areas most susceptible to floods and disease. Their transfer may take months. Last weekend the first buses took just over 100 people from the Pétionville Club, an undulating golf course that was once a haunt of rich Haitians and where 45,000 people are now camped out in squalor. Aid workers complain that the government did not give them enough time to prepare the site at Corail Cesselesse by, for example, laying gravel to prevent dust storms and flooding. “Future moves cannot be done in this last-minute fashion,” said Marcel Stoessel, who heads Oxfam in Haiti.
Still, the designation of the site is a milestone in a painfully slow process of rebuilding a country shaken to its core. It is the first significant act by Haiti’s government, which was disabled and rendered homeless and all but invisible by the quake. In the immediate aftermath, aid workers grappled with chaos unusual even by the standards of severe natural disasters: there were supply bottlenecks at airports and warehouses, communication networks were down, and mountains of rubble blocked roads. Aid agencies sometimes seemed keener to hoist their own flags than to work together, prompting Sir John Holmes, the United Nations emergency relief co-ordinator, to castigate them for their lack of co-ordination.
These problems—a weak government and a welter of aid agencies with clashing agendas—predate the earthquake in Haiti, which long had a reputation as a “Republic of NGOs”. By some (inexact) counts, there are more than 10,000 of them operating there—more per head than anywhere else in the Americas. Only about 550 are registered with the government. Because of worries about government corruption and incompetence, donors have long tended to channel their aid through NGOs, which in turn provide the bulk of social services, from hospitals and sanitation systems to orphanages and schools.
Aid dependence means that the government lacks the means to pursue development policies. Take the Ministry of Agriculture. Its sources of funding are so many, dispersed, small, and fickle that Michel Chancy, the deputy minister, says he is unsure of its total budget. “The entire structure of foreign aid must be overhauled” if rebuilding is to help, rather than hinder, Haiti’s development, Mr Chancy said.
One of the few bits of good news for Haiti is that the urgent need to strengthen the public administration was recognised at a donors conference held in New York on March 31st, at which almost 60 countries and institutions pledged $9.9 billion. The question is whether good intentions can be turned into good public policy.
The government asked donors for $350m in direct budget support between now and October (and a total of $1.2 billion over the next 18 months). That is because it has lost most of its meagre revenues, 85% of which came from in or near the capital. It needs the money to pay wages and an electricity subsidy and to invest in farming. Bill Clinton, the former American president who is the UN’s special envoy for Haiti, has urged donors to spend 10% of their grants on improving government capacity, including budget support.
The New York conference also approved the setting up of a single authority to co-ordinate aid. The Interim Haitian Reconstruction Commission—chaired jointly by Jean-Max Bellerive, Haiti’s prime minister, and Mr Clinton—has the authority to seek, approve and co-ordinate projects. The government hopes it will also blunt donors’ worries that their money might be stolen rather than spent. The committee will include eight Haitian government officials, representatives from trade unions and business, ten donor nominees and a Caribbean Community representative. Groups with observer status include the Haitian diaspora in the United States. A trust fund administered by the World Bank will manage the money.
This structure echoes a plan drawn up for the government in 2008 by Paul Collier, an economist at Oxford University. It represents the best chance that this time Haiti will not be permanently weakened by natural disaster, as so often in the past. Whether it will be approved by the Haitian people remains to be seen. René Préval, the president, has been barely visible since the quake, and is now unpopular. A presidential election was due to be held in November; according to Mr Clinton, this should still be possible. Haitians and their outside helpers must urgently find a way to balance short-term survival and longer-term development.
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