By Bill Miller
Immediately after the horrific 7.0 earthquake that decimated Port-au-Prince, Haiti on January 12, 2010, the world media descended on the poverty-stricken country and provided nearly '24-7' coverage of the disaster that killed over 225,000, maimed thousands, dispossessed over 1.3 million and caused losses of approximately $7 billion, which is 120% of Haiti's 2009 gross domestic product (GDP).
Shortly thereafter, the media and the public lost interest. The coverage disappeared and little was reported about one of the most devastating natural disasters to afflict the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti's 'CNN Moment' was over.
On March 31, the spotlight returned when the United Nations and the US, in conjunction with the Haitian Government, convened a high-level donors' conference --'Towards a New Future in Haiti'-- at the UN Headquarters in New York. The attendees heard from key players, such as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Haitian President Rene Preval, and the UN Special Envoy for Haiti, former President Bill Clinton, who urged that countries be generous and commit the financial resources necessary for Haiti's recovery.
The US led the way with a pledge of $1.15 billion, in addition to $900 million previously donated. France, which was the imperial power in Haiti until a slave rebellion in 1804, contributed $188 million and canceled a $75 million debt. China put up a minuscule $1.5 million, along with an earlier $14 million; the 27-nation European Union pledged over $1.6 billion, as well as $370 million previously donated; and the other occupant on the island of Hispaniola and Haiti's neighbor, the Dominican Republic, contributed $50 million. At the end of the day, over 50 countries and international organizations pledged over $10 billion to achieve the goal of not rebuilding but to 'build back better...a new Haiti.'
The bulk of the money will be to fund social sectors, such as water and sanitation, health and education; infrastructure, such as housing, transportation and energy; and production such as agriculture, industry, trade and tourism.
Former US President Clinton and Haiti's Prime Minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, will co-chair the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission to monitor the reconstruction with the aid of countless international technical assistance advisers, many provided by the US government. Their main goals will be to make sure the money is spent properly and the projects are coordinated.
These are intertwined major challenges since the former Haitian governments, especially under the dictator Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier, were notoriously corrupt and inefficient. Untold millions of dollars disappeared into overseas bank accounts and other nefarious destinations.
Closely aligned is the issue of coordination. Haiti developed the moniker of the 'Republic of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).' A large number of donors started giving money to various NGOs to provide medicine, food and other services, rather than working through the Haitian government. It is estimated that close to 10,000 private groups were involved in Haiti, often at cross purposes and with little coordination among their activities, which created considerable inefficiency and waste. Former President Clinton emphasized how it was imperative to have better coordination of the disparate aid efforts underway in Haiti.
What are some of the other challenges to guaranteeing a successful outcome in building a new Haiti?
First, now that the pledges have been made, it is crucial that the donors stand by their commitments. In the past, many have failed to deliver on their promises.
Second, in order for donors to have confidence and to continue their financial and technical assistance, it will be imperative that the process be accountable, transparent and show that the investments been expended efficiently and effectively. No donor wants to put money into projects that are bogus or have marginal value.
Third, the Haitian leadership and community must be brought into the process. Haitians who are living outside of the country can provide doctors, engineers or financial assistance to help with the reconstruction. The Haitian government, as it displays its capacity to operate professionally and honestly, must shoulder more of the responsibility and decision-making. True success will be Haitians rebuilding Haiti, not external players who do not have a direct stake in its future.
Fourth, Port-au-Prince was home to over 3 million people, out of a total population of 9 million. Efforts may be made to develop new population centers that would be smaller and more removed from the immediate earthquake fault line. This may be a challenge if people wish to live in the capital, not to mention that Haiti is a mountainous country with scarce flat land.
Regardless of how the development process occurs, the UN and its battery of agencies, programs and international public administrators will play a central role. Just a few examples include:
--UNICEF ( UN Children's Fund) is developing maternal and child health care programs, as well as focusing on child abuse and illegal trafficking of children;
--The World Food Program had fed over 3.4 million Haitians and 850,000 get daily five-liter rations of water;
--United Nations Peacekeepers, which suffered a drastic loss of their top two leaders on January 12, have been invaluable in providing security in a very chaotic and dangerous situation;
--UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is working to develop the educational system.
Other UN agencies are working to clear irrigation canals, restore phone and postal services, immunize children against childhood diseases, provide tents and temporary shelter and implement a cash-for-work program, just to mention a few.
The UN agencies that were on the ground generally have received high marks, especially at the outset of the crisis, for developing, coordinating and implementing the initial relief efforts under some very dire circumstances. According to a leaked e-mail by John Holmes, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more should have been done to launch the humanitarian 'cluster strategy.' This strategy coordinates the delivery of basic needs in 12 sectors, for example water and shelter, while coordinating the overlapping services of various aid agencies that have a tendency to duplicate efforts and compete with one another, which reduces efficiency and effectiveness.
Even prior to the earthquake, the situation was bleak with only 50% of the Haitians with access to safe drinking water, 55% of the 9 million population lived on less than $1.00 per day, and 24% of children under five suffered from chronic malnutrition. This could change quite dramatically.
Recently, the US showed even more of a commitment to help Haiti get back on its feet. First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, while en route to Mexico, made a surprise visit to Haiti. They met with President Preval, visited a children's safe space established by First Lady of Haiti Elisabeth Delatour Preval and danced with some of the children.
Additionally, the US Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the Debt Relief for Earthquake Recovery in Haiti Act which seeks to get more grants to Haiti until 2015 so that it will not incur more debt. It also focuses on encouraging international institutions to cancel the debt that Haiti owes them.
If the international community lives up to its promises, and the Haitians, who generally displayed a tremendous decorum and triumph of the human spirit during this disaster, become full-fledged partners in the rebuilding, it may very well be that Haiti will become a beacon of hope and modernity in the 21st century, rather than a poverty-stricken land that offers little hope for a brighter future.
Bill Miller, former Chair of the UN Association of the USA's Council of Chapter and Division Presidents, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connections Television.”