Opinion: Haiti stands alone

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.

Aid workers are certainly self-aware. They know when their programs are not working. A few years ago they staged a major world conference and issued a call for action entitled the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. It offered a list of recommendations, but chief among them was “the need for effective partnerships among donor and recipient countries based on the recognition of recipient countries’ leadership and ownership of development plans.”

That’s the problem. Haiti effectively has no government, despite President Rene Preval’s insistence to the contrary. The State Department puts Haiti in the same category as Somalia, the two nations with the weakest governments in the world, both of them inept, incapable and thoroughly corrupt.

When former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush visited a refugee camp in Port-au-Prince last month, Preval joined them, and they were greeted with catcalls. Refugees wanted to know why Preval had done nothing for them. In the months since the earthquake, he and his government had essentially gone into hiding.

Late last month, donors met at the United Nations and pledged almost $10 billion for Haiti over the next three years. The United States pledged $1.15 billion; Montenegro offered $10,000. Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general, offered an expansive vision of “a wholesale renewal, a sweeping exercise in nation building on a scale and scope not seen in generations.”

“To put this effort in perspective,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the conference, “after the 2004 tsunami” in Southeast Asia, “more than 80 countries provided immediate humanitarian assistance and more than 20 countries pledged assistance for reconstruction. “As of today, more than 140 countries have provided humanitarian assistance to Haiti and nearly 50 countries have made pledges of support for Haiti's building.”

Haiti stands alone; no other nation is showered with such largess. No other nation has squandered so much.

The government and the donors have agreed to form a so-called reconstruction committee through which all the aid will flow. Bill Clinton and Jean-Max Bellerive, the Haitian prime minister, are to chair it. And you can hear both Clinton and his wife, the secretary of state, now talking about accountability — making sure the funds do not slosh down the corruption sewer. The government is asking for $350 million in direct aid right up front. All this offers a depressingly familiar ring.

But Gayle hopes and believes this time will be different. What choice does she have? “I hate to think that the great equalizer has to be this earthquake. But take what you can get. It’s a missed opportunity if you don’t use it for positive change.”