x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Aid workers in Haiti call for transparency as crisis ends

Questionable land deals and food hoarding raise fears of widespread profiteering as the government strikes deals free of scrutiny.

Haitians demonstrate in Port-au-Prince, demanding food. Chaotic distribution has hampered tonnes of aid from reaching people in the capital.
Haitians demonstrate in Port-au-Prince, demanding food. Chaotic distribution has hampered tonnes of aid from reaching people in the capital.

NEW YORK // The "crisis" phase of last month's earthquake in Haiti comes to an end in five days, despite the fact that more than one million Haitians remain homeless and the hurricane season is only months away. On Monday, the government in Port-au-Prince will begin to report on how all aid has been distributed and implement policies to "guarantee transparency and still maintain a speedy response", said Kim Bolduc, the United Nations' aid co-ordinator for Haiti.

Transparency has been a major issue since aid began arriving on the island following the quake. Corruption monitors accuse UN and government officials of making blunders in their rush to pour tens of millions of dollars in to tackling the country's worst natural disaster in decades. The corruption concerns are particularly acute because Haiti is an impoverished Caribbean nation ranked as among the world's most graft-ridden countries, with "endemic" levels of malfeasance across the public sector.

Hundreds of survivors demonstrated in the capital's suburb of Pétionville on Sunday, accusing a district mayor of corruption and hoarding food provided by relief groups. Despite tonnes of food and other aid reaching Port-au-Prince's single-runway international airport, chaotic distribution efforts have left many Haitians hungry and angry. The rush to provide aid following natural disasters presents crooked traders and officials ample opportunity to net illicit profits, by intercepting and selling relief supplies or using backhanders to secure reconstruction contracts, experts warn.

Aid workers have described the Haitian earthquake, a magnitude-7 temblor that struck on January 12 and which is now believed to have killed more than 200,000, as among "the most complex" crises in the history of relief work, with the capital city levelled and both the government and UN offices ravaged by the disaster. Following the appointment of Bill Clinton as the UN's special envoy in charge of co-ordinating relief efforts, experts have wondered whether the former US president should assume control over some executive functions of Haiti's government.

"As a Haitian, it would be extremely hard to say I want Haiti under an official trusteeship," said Marilyn Allien, the president of the Haitian branch of Transparency International, an international anti-graft group. "But we don't trust the current government to lead the country out of this post-disaster situation. The government was weak before and it is even weaker now. The leadership shown by our government in the days following the disaster has been quite deficient."

Despite the presence of more than 12,600 blue-helmeted troops and police and thousands more US soldiers in Haiti, the UN maintains the "Haitian government is clearly in charge on the ground there". UN spokesman Martin Nesirky, said. "It is a sovereign country with a sovereign government. "What the government clearly requires is assistance to co-ordinate, on an international scale, the aid that is being received and the longer-term prospect of reconstruction and recovery, and that's where President Clinton comes in, that's where the United Nations, through the UN Development Programme comes in."

Transparency International warned that land deals involving the UN, the government and Haitian businessmen are being conducted without oversight and offer swindlers a golden opportunity to pocket cash. Deals involving land in the Port-au-Prince suburbs of Croix des Bouquets and Tabarre, and at Léogâne, 29km west of the capital and close to the epicentre of the earthquake, are being struck behind closed doors, Ms Allien said. "The government needs to find large tracts of land in order to establish more permanent refugee camps, but at the same time we are worried about the question of money entering the process, especially since the government itself is the owner of a great deal of land around Port-au-Prince so they should be able to find land they already own.

"Obviously there is money to be made somewhere." The graft monitor warned of a "lot of haggling going on" between officials and landowners, with some businessmen offering plots free of cost for one year but then bargaining for lucrative rental agreements once the grace period expires, she said. Government officials are using "emergency situation" rules to strike deals without scrutiny, potentially yielding big dividends for landowners, who could have buildings, sewage systems and other infrastructure built on their land cost-free by overseas donors.

One suspect deal involves a Haitian businessman, Jean Claude Verdier, who owns the 40-hectare Croix de Bouquets site currently being prepared by UN relief teams to house 30,000 Haitians in tents and then possibly permanent homes. Mr Verdier said he is still fixing his price for the second rental year. Ms Bolduc of the UN said: "The government has been negotiating with landowners to lend or donate that land."

She insisted that officials have "not been discussing about payment for land". Haitian officials were not available to comment, but have previously asserted that all deals are above board. With government officials operating without check, Ms Allien said, the "UN should be playing an oversight role - to ensure that nobody is benefiting unduly from the misery of others and to be sure that there is total transparency".

Ms Allien claimed that 41 per cent of a multimillion-dollar Venezuelan aid package granted to Haiti after hurricanes in 2008 remain "unaccounted for". One official who asked too many questions of his colleagues was kidnapped last year, she said, and is now presumed dead. jreinl@thenational.ae