x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Corruption hinders Haiti aid efforts

Donor countries are to unveil their pledges today to help earthquake-ravaged Haiti meet its US$3.8 billion (Dh14bn) reconstruction costs.

A public employee works on the demolition of a collapsed building in the Pacot neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince.
A public employee works on the demolition of a collapsed building in the Pacot neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince.

NEW YORK // Donor countries are to unveil their pledges today to help earthquake-ravaged Haiti meet its US$3.8 billion (Dh14bn) reconstruction costs. The donor conference aims to raise the initial sum to rebuild 1,300 schools, government offices, hospitals and other infrastructure that was levelled when a quake ripped through the impoverished country on January 12.

But opinions are divided over whether Haitian officials should be entrusted with spending the money. Some argue for empowering the Caribbean government to solve its own problems; others warn that Haiti's bureaucracy is too corrupt and weak to handle such an onerous responsibility. Haiti's president, René Préval, has described today's donor conference at UN headquarters in Manhattan as an "opportunity for us to tell the entire world that the reconstruction of our country must be, above all, a national effort".

The UN's top official in Haiti, Edmond Mulet, acknowledged that Haiti's government was "quite weak" even before the magnitude-7 quake killed 18,000 civil servants, but insisted that the decimated bureaucracy should be "in the driver's seat". "To be frank, this is not the first time that UN members states meet to raise funds for Haiti - we hope that on this occasion we will get it right. For too long the international community has bypassed national and local government institutions because of their perceived and real weaknesses," Mr Mulet said.

"We have always worked not with the government - because we were concerned it was corrupt, inefficient and weak. But if we don't address this now, we will have a peacekeeping mission and international interventions in Haiti for the next 200 years." Analysts have described the scale of Haiti's quake tragedy as "mind-boggling". As more bodies are dragged from piles of rubble and twisted steel, the final death toll is predicted to climb towards 300,000. An estimated 1.3 million of a total population of nine million were left homeless.

About 600,000 survivors fled the shoddily built capital, Port-au-Prince, after the quake levelled 100,000 homes and damaged twice as many again; with the total value of losses estimated at $8bn, more than 120 per cent of the country's gross domestic product last year. An assessment by the Haitian government with international support put the total needed for Haiti's recovery at $11.5bn over the next decade; the smaller sum sought today covers only partial reconstruction in the coming 18 months.

In midtown Manhattan, Mr Préval is to unveil his national recovery plan to more than 140 donors at a meeting expected to be attended by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and her husband, the UN special envoy to Haiti and former US president, Bill Clinton. It calls for refurbishing the main port and airport, building a new airport and two new seaports, and laying 600 kilometres of road to promote access to health centres, trade and tourism. It also features political reforms and plans to decentralize Haiti's economy and governance away from Port-au-Prince.

Key donors to Haiti, such as the United States, Brazil, Canada and Spain, have already earmarked billions of dollars to help the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, including $2.7bn expected from the European Union and a coalition of US-based humanitarian groups. The money will be routed through an Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, chaired by Haiti's prime minister and an envoy from the international community, with a board made up of the country's largest donors.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, unveiled his ambitious plan for Haitian recovery in a column in The Washington Post on Monday, writing that funding "must be well-spent and well-coordinated" and lead to "nothing less than a wholesale national renewal". Mr Ban called for a "new social contract" between Haiti's leaders and citizens, where decades of coups, ethnic rivalry and gang violence have done little to wrestle power from Haiti's elite. The UN chief also called for "fair and free elections - preferably by the end of this year".

But those inside Haiti, including the tens of thousands living in makeshift camps of tarpaulin and sticks, are more sanguine about the prospects of a home-grown recovery, according to a survey of 1,700 Haitians organised by the charity group Oxfam. The poll, conducted this month around Port-au-Prince, found that Haitians "expressed little confidence in their government's capacity to unilaterally lead the reconstruction plan to be agreed upon in New York" and looked towards their own civil society and foreign groups for solutions.

An Oxfam spokeswoman, Julie Schindall, said the government might struggle given that many of its finest civil servants had died in the quake, but added: "The government needs to have a leadership role in the rebuilding and development of Haiti, and the international community should help the government in terms of capacity building for administering programmes and in terms of funding." Transparency International, the global corruption monitor, has described Haiti as one of the world's most graft-ridden countries and raised concerns over aid and development cash being diverted into the pockets of unscrupulous officials.

Reconstruction efforts are routinely plagued by corruption, with funds swallowed in chains of sub-contractors, each taking their cut, leaving roads, schools and homes badly built in places such as Afghanistan and Indonesia after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Some analysts have suggested that Haiti's reconstruction be overseen by a UN trusteeship body, with Transparency's president in Haiti, Marilyn Allien, arguing that spending be tightly controlled by donors and the world body.

"We know that corruption is endemic here, and we know that opportunities for corruption multiply after a humanitarian disaster," she said. "The president's reconstruction plan has a lot of weaknesses. The questions of accountability and transparency seem to be entirely lacking. You cannot ask donors for billions of dollars while the world is getting over an economic recession and not say how you're going to ensure transparency."

Although UN officials publicly support the Haitian government, the 11 weeks since the earthquake have seen the world body and Haitian officials repeatedly clash over crisis management, arguing over whether to evacuate the capital and when to stop handing out free food. Top UN officials privately complain that the Haitian government spent more than two months locating the sites to build five semi-permanent camps for those currently living in muddy tarpaulin hovels. Government delays mean many will suffer more loss during the coming rain and hurricane seasons.

@Email:jreinl@thenational.ae