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A continuing effort to answer an elusive, multi-billion-dollar question: "After Haiti's devastating earthquake, where did the aid money go?"

Haiti’s road to recovery

A vital but treacherous highway is being rebuilt, just the kind of long-term development Haitians have been hoping for.

LES CAYES, Haiti — For years, the road from here to the coastal city of Jérémie has been paved with good intentions, but never with asphalt.

Well-meaning international organizations and donors built schools in the villages that dot the roadside, purchased goats for children to raise and sell and donated supplies for home repair. But those projects came and went, barely making a dent in the region's gripping poverty. All the while, the road itself deteriorated into a 62-mile stretch of rocks and mud, making travel difficult and sometimes deadly.

Last week 40 passengers were killed when their bus overturned trying to cross the flooded Riviére Glace — Ice River —that dissects the passage, according to government figures from the incident.

Now, the passage known as National Route 7 is in the middle of a $142 million development project that in many ways is a model of the successful, long-term development Haiti desperately needs.

GlobalPost set out to find what insight this road can offer the myriad of small reconstruction projects underway here and throughout Haiti that are largely failing to bring about lasting change despite billions of dollars in post-earthquake reconstruction aid.

“People have been born and died wanting this.”
~Deubemi Bazile

The journey begins with the history of the road and the lives of its travelers.

Five years ago, the trek through the mountains that separate Jérémie from the city of Les Cayes and Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince would take a rural farmer seven hours to travel by public truck — on a good day.

During the rainy season though, the truck might get stuck in deep mud multiple times along the way, or break down altogether. If that happened, your vegetables might spoil while you slept in the shade of the vehicle, waiting for a replacement part to slowly make its way up from Les Cayes.

If you were fortunate enough to make it to your destination — a market in Port-au-Prince — with some of your products intact, chances are you would have spent most of your earnings to pay the cost of transport, leaving little with which to feed your family or pay your children’s school fees.

Now, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Canadian government are rapidly changing all that. National Route 7 is only two-thirds complete and yet already it's cut the travel time between the two cities in half. The cost of traveling the road by bus or truck has gone down because more drivers are willing to make the journey, which requires far less fuel than it used to because the road is smoother.

More from GlobalPost: Haiti's recovery hangs on spending aid locally

Subsistence farmers who used to stack their yams, bananas and carrots along the road and wait for passing customers instead journey to weekly markets in nearby towns, which are becoming crowded with new vendors.

“I’ve been selling here forever,” said Jane Bazil, a 30-year-old vegetable grower and mother of eight who depends upon the market in the town of Duchity to sell her crops. “More people come now — come to sell, to buy. With the road today you can make it here in three hours. It used to take five.”

But this road isn’t being built with any of the $10.2 billion in aid pledged to by donor countries to help Haiti rebuild from the earthquake. The project started in 2008, two years before the disaster that killed tens of thousands of people and sent many fleeing cities back to rural areas like this one. The road’s impact may last far longer than the short-term aid projects that are sometimes riddled with corruption and waste — pitfalls on Haiti’s own road to recovery.

Wrong Turns

The are many such failures: the US Agency for International Development (USAID) recently spent $2 million US taxpayer dollars to build a temporary home for Haiti’s Parliament, but the agency failed to furnish the building, which required legislators to draw three-quarters of a million dollars from the nation’s small public treasury to finish the job.

And in the year following the earthquake, USAID spent $140 million on a food aid program that helps American farmers but has been blamed for undercutting Haitian producers who can’t compete with foreign food imports. The amount spent on that program is nearly identical to the $142 million road project that most Haitians say is helping, not hurting, Haiti’s rural population.

“Haitians think the NGOs are like the government — they absorb the money and there is no service,” said Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner who advised the government’s post-earthquake reconstruction plan. “There aren’t many NGOs involved in big infrastructure like roads or ports — nobody’s doing that.”

The comprehensive reconstruction plan that Voltaire worked on promoted a strategy of decentralization, moving people out of overcrowded urban centers like Port-au-Prince that became death traps when the earthquake hit. Instead, the plan asks donors to encourage development in smaller urban centers and rural areas.

“We invested a lot in infrastructure outside of Port-au-Prince,” said Ronald Baudin, finance minister under René Préval — Haiti’s president at the time of the quake.

Funding from international institutions like the IDB, Pan American Health Organization and the United Nations routinely goes to long-term and often rural projects like this one.

The IDB is currently implementing $245 million worth of transportation projects in Haiti, including National Route 7. The World Bank is funding approximately $30 million in transportation development including road re-paving in fiscal year 2012 alone, and the European Union is funding a $53 million road from Haiti’s second largest city, Cap Haitien, down to Port-au-Prince.

But Haiti's Interim Recovery Commission, charged with approving all publicly funded reconstruction projects, allocated only 20 percent of the $2.38 billion it received from donor nations exclusively toward improving Haiti's transportation infrastructure.

USAID allocated only $113 million (7.5 percent) of its total $1.5 billion in post-earthquake funding to rehabilitate roads and ports, among other development projects.

And unlike institutional aid, spending by NGOs and individual donors continues to focus on either short-term projects like debris removal, temporary services for people living in camps, or house construction. Little of that aid reaches Haiti’s southwestern peninsula where National Route 7 is being built.

Of a sample 343 reconstruction aid projects nationwide totaling more than $408 million, only 16 projects worth $1.5 million (0.3 percent) were being spent exclusively in the two regions through which the road passes, despite them being home to 15 percent of the Haiti’s population, according to data mapped by Interaction, a coalition of American NGOs.