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Opinion: US can give better aid to Haiti

Recovery in Haiti can be spurred by smarter US aid that promotes trade and immigration.

Former U.S. presidents George W. Bush, right and Bill Clinton, left, and Haiti's President Rene Preval walk in front of the destroyed national palace in Port-au-Prince, March 22, 2010. Clinton and Bush were in Haiti to discuss the impoverished country's long-term recovery after the January earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Last week at a United Nations conference, donors pledged more than $10 billion to finance reconstruction and development investments in Haiti. The United States promised a hefty $1.15 billion.

But pledging money is the easy part. The United States, the lead donor and friend with the greatest interest in Haiti’s future development, can do much more, in two ways: its own aid programs can be more effective; and it can take steps beyond aid that are far more critical to long-run prosperity for Haiti’s people.

On the aid issue, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that “failed strategies” of the past need to be put aside. She called for smarter and better, not just more, aid. For the United States, better aid should mean more U.S. aid actually reaching Haiti’s people. How about a commitment that of the $1 billion the United States spends at least $800 million is actually spent in Haiti by and through Haitians? That would be well above the average for many U.S. aid programs — which fund mostly U.S. equipment, consultants and big contractors. Congress might well be willing to give USAID Administrator Raj Shah the special flexibilities needed in procurement and audit functions, say for the next 18 to 24 months. For example USAID should be able to issue contracts to Haitian businesses for key services — even those that lost the normally required three years of audited statements in the earthquake.

And beyond aid, there are non-aid channels that could make a bigger and more enduring difference for Haiti’s people.

First, trade for jobs. The Congress should pass legislation allowing duty-free, quota-free access for all Haitian exports, and make that access permanent. We already give some preferences to Haitian exporters over those from richer countries, and before the earthquake, the improved access was boosting investment and jobs in Haiti’s apparel industry. But these arrangements limit the quantity and types of goods that can come in each year, and include complicated rules requiring that cloth and other inputs needed to make those goods come mostly from the United States. Moreover, the program needs periodic Congressional re-approval that discourages some investors who instead build factories in countries with guaranteed permanent access to the U.S. market.

Second, 10,000 more visas a year. Haitians want the opportunities America offers onshore. The Obama administration should ensure that Haitians are awarded at least 10,000 visas in each of the next three years. There is no provision in current U.S. immigration programs to reserve even a single visa for people devastated by natural or economic disasters. An unskilled Haitian immigrant in the U.S. makes six times more than his or her counterpart in Haiti, and Haitians living abroad send home twice as much money as the country receives in foreign aid. A new Golden Door Visa could be designed so that the total number of U.S. legal immigrants (about 500,000 per year) remained the same but was slightly weighted for several years to applicants from our hard-hit close neighbor.