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Editorial

'Build back better' in Haiti

It isn't enough to come up with the money at this week's donor conference. Haiti and the international community must develop a strategy for spending it.

March 29, 2010

When U.S., United Nations and Haitian leaders meet with representatives of some 50 other countries in New York on Wednesday, they will be trying to raise about $4 billion to begin the reconstruction of Haiti, laid waste by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12. The prospective donors will hear that Haiti, already the poorest country in the hemisphere, suffered $7.8 billion in damages and lost 80% of its revenue, leaving the government unable to pay salaries. They will be presented with plans to address the country's gaping needs: housing for 1.3 million people living in temporary shelters around the capital of Port-au-Prince and for another half a million displaced to other parts of the country; reconstruction of more than 1,300 schools, dozens of healthcare centers, roads and other infrastructure, and 28 of 29 government ministries; training of replacements for the 17% of the civil service that died in the quake. The donors will be looking not merely to return Haiti to its previous impoverished state but to decentralize the population, develop the agricultural sector and build an export economy that can lift it out of chronic misery. In short, they will seek to avoid what Albert Einstein called the insanity of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Myriad donor conferences have been held for Haiti over the years, and billions of dollars have poured into the country, which occupies half the island of Hispaniola, 700 miles from Florida. But decades of foreign aid and charity -- along with remittances from hundreds of thousands of Haitians working abroad -- have barely sustained Haiti, let alone helped it to become self-sufficient and prosper.

On the contrary, foreign intervention often backfired. When international aid was lost to systemic corruption and inefficiency on the part of a weak Haitian government, it was frequently rechanneled through the United Nations and international nonprofit organizations, further undermining the government. World Bank and International Monetary Fund free trade policies that forced Haiti to open its markets to subsidized farm products had the unintended effect of strangling Haitian agriculture, turning a sugar producer into an importer of about 250,000 tons of sugar a year. Former President Clinton, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, recently said that he was mistaken in signing legislation that made subsidized "Miami rice" available in Haiti, driving out the homegrown variety.

So how should they do things different this time? How can donors and experts ensure that they will, as Clinton, said, "build back better"? The World Bank estimates that task will take at least $11.5 billion over many years. (Haitians say it could be triple that.) President Obama has asked Congress for $2.8 billion for Haiti this year, although at least half of that is to cover expenditures already made. Hopefully the donor conference will produce commitments to match that -- if not more.

But it isn't enough to come up with the money. Haiti and the international community must seize the momentum of this conference to endorse a strategy for spending it. They must set priorities among the overwhelming demands and divide up responsibility for sectors among the providers. In his request to Congress, Obama said the United States would concentrate on critical healthcare, governance, security and urgent infrastructure repair, particularly in the energy and agriculture sectors.

Still, there is the question of who will decide which projects get the green light and who will oversee the disbursement of funds. A U.S.-backed proposal would establish an Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission made up of Haitians and foreigners to prioritize and approve projects for 18 months, eventually handing off responsibility to a Haitian development authority. It would be co-chaired by President Rene Preval and, most likely, Clinton. Under the proposal, a World Bank-managed multinational trust fund also would be established to manage a pool of international funds -- although just how much remains to be seen, since the United States and other governments are going to want to manage most of their own money. An independent audit authority would be created as well.

This is a sound plan so long as Haitians have a real voice in decision-making on the commission and are not just there to rubber-stamp foreigners' projects. Naturally donors want assurances that their money will be properly spent; to that end there also are proposals for placing international "mentors" -- including, possibly, members of the Haitian diaspora -- inside government ministries to train officials in developing standards and practices, contracts, accounting and oversight. That's fine too, as long as the Haitian government buys into the proposal. Reconstruction will not succeed without a firm Haitian commitment to managing the rebuilding.

Time really is of the essence. President Preval's term is almost up, and elections are to be held by the end of the year. Haiti cannot afford for its reconstruction plan to fall victim to electioneering. Moreover, the best way to maintain peace in the streets is for Haitians to see progress in their devastated country.

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