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Opinion: Haiti stands alone

President of international aid organization CARE hopes this time aid dollars won't be squandered.

Students pray before a lesson starts in Kindergarten Frere Polycarpe du Sacre-Coeur in downtown Port-au-Prince, April 6, 2010. Some schools reopened in the wrecked Haitian capital on Monday nearly three months after the Jan. 12 earthquake, but others could not because of lack of repairs or equipment, staff said. (UN Photo/Sophia Paris/Handout/Reuters)

PALO ALTO — Dr. Helene Gayle has a vision. She sees a glimmer of promise in the earthquake that destroyed Haiti in January.

Maybe, just maybe, the disaster has changed the dynamics on the ground, bringing an end to the vicious cycle that has wasted billions upon billions of donor dollars over the last 20 years, leaving Haitians just as malnourished, destitute and uneducated as they would have been had the international community done nothing at all.

Gayle is president and chief executive officer of CARE, the international aid organization. Her organization plans to spend $100 million in Haiti over the next five years — fully aware of how hard it is to put that money to effective use.

As the World Bank put it in 2005, just after Hurricane Jeanne devastated the island and brought another spasm of humanitarian aid, Haiti offers “dysfunctional budgetary, financial or procurement systems making financial and aid management impossible.” The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had already concluded that “Haiti's public institutions were too weak and ineffective to provide the level of partnership needed with USAID or other donors to promote development.”

But then, nothing so terrible as January’s earthquake had every happened to Haiti. Sure, the island has suffered hurricanes, storms, floods and every manner of political upheaval. But none of those quite literally destroyed the island’s infrastructure. Even the presidential palace fell down. And that, Gayle hopes and believes, could serve as “a great equalizer, almost a focusing mechanism.

“When even the president of the country doesn’t have a home, he is walking around in a daze, just like the rest of the people, you know that something has to shift if we don’t want to waste another $8 billion.” Maybe the Haitian government and the donors will finally wake up.

Haiti, of course, is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Its location is both a blessing and a curse. Laos, Senegal, Bangladesh, Yemen and many other countries are just as poor. But Haiti lives in the shadow of the world’s wealthiest nation, full of people who want to do good.

“Haiti is so close to a resource-rich country,” Gayle noted. “It’s small and confined.” So aid workers cannot help themselves; they want to help. Haiti is the perfect place to try. But after decades of effort, very little has changed.