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Spending So That Haiti Is 'Built Back Better'

Author: Kara C. McDonald
April 7, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE - The rainy season fast approaching will be the first test of the effectiveness of international assistance that has poured into Haiti since the January 12 earthquake that claimed a quarter of a million lives. Much has changed in the capital since the earthquake's early aftermath. Markets and street vendors line the streets, local transportation called Tap-Taps are crowded with Haitians on their daily errands, and businesses are reopening. Yet while roads are passable, imploded buildings and piles of rubble still pock the city. Over one million people are still living under bed sheets and plastic tarps held up by sticks and poles. While food is abundant, jobs and housing are not. And the psychological suffering is extreme: Almost everyone has experienced loss, and those who haven't wrestle with guilt.

Now that the March 31 donors' conference in New York City is over and officials have returned to Port-au-Prince, the real work begins to ensure that the $9.9 billion in conference pledges result in a Haitian state and society "built back better" (in the words of a now-clichéd mantra), and that they do not become just another crest in the waves of international assistance to Haiti.

Speed, Results, and Transparency

By all accounts, the donors' conference was a success, with the $9.9 billion pledged over the next three years exceeding the Haitian government's appeal for an initial tranche of $3.8 billion. Now the challenge is to match dollars to the pledges, to sustain that commitment over the ten-year $11.5 billion reconstruction plan for Haiti established by the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment, and to ensure that assistance dollars meet their aims. Devising programs that achieve concrete, sustainable results on a nation-wide scale remains a mark that has yet to be hit in Haiti.

The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, co-chaired by Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and Special Envoy Bill Clinton, will monitor donor disbursements and attempt to stem corruption, a perennial thorn when donor funds flood a country and made more likely by longstanding profiteers and trafficking networks in Haiti.

The donor community must acknowledge that short-term and long-term objectives are not zero-sum. Approaches to short-term needs, like shelter and job creation, must complement a wider state-building strategy and be measured by their salutary impacts on these longer-term goals.

The commission will face the dual challenge of ensuring accountability for the billions of dollars moved through its coffers while resisting the deceleration or bottlenecking of funds. It will also have a critical role in improving donor coordination. International and non-governmental organizations and donors have saturated Port-au-Prince and overwhelmed Haitian institutions--all the more reason that the international donor community take responsibility for coordinating itself and easing the burden on local counterparts.

Priorities on the Ground

While shelter, jobs, and education remain the most pressing needs, assistance must fit into and contribute to strategic goals of political and economic stability.

Between 1.1 and 1.5 million people are still living in makeshift shelters. In the immediate term, the donor response will be judged by its ability to secure between 9,000 and 37,000 people deemed most at risk during the rainy season, which starts in early May. But it would be myopic not to think about the long-term consequences of these humanitarian efforts and a large population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who will likely remain in such camps for months if not years to come. So there must be a focus on ensuring that the camps do not settle into large slums, like Cite Soleil, which harbored Haiti's notorious gangs and thugs.

To achieve this, the donor community must acknowledge that short-term and long-term objectives are not zero-sum. Approaches to short-term needs, like shelter and job creation, must complement a wider state-building strategy and be measured by their salutary impacts on these longer-term goals. For example, programs that put restless youth to work rehabilitating infrastructure, the environment, and farming simultaneously improve the security environment, economic development, and political stability. Cash-for-work programs have been highly praised and should be expanded to leverage results in other areas, like school attendance. Providing schools and cash-for-work jobs near new resettlement camps and outside Port-au-Prince could help expedite relocating people camping on the flood plain and bring stability to the half million people who have already fled Port-au-Prince.

Avoiding a Political Earthquake

Civil unrest in Haiti has historically been tied to one of two social triggers--the holding of elections and the reopening of schools after crisis. Haiti now faces both. The announced reopening of schools on April 5 has many here asking, "What schools?" But resuming normal life and getting kids into school, even under makeshift tents, is precisely where international assistance should be focused to promote social stability.

Perhaps most important to the reconstruction strategy is wedding development assistance to the effort to build the public administration of the Haitian state and an accountable system of service delivery.

While most agree that holding an election in the aftermath of an earthquake should not be a top priority, international donors and the Haitian government understand that a peaceful transition next February to a duly-elected president is vital to the country's economic development and stability. Pulling off an election is daunting in a country whose voter lists have largely been destroyed, where nearly one-quarter of a million dead lie in makeshift graves or are still buried under rubble, and where 40 percent of Haitians do not have identity documents.

Yet as challenging as elections may be in the post-quake environment, the institutional challenges are harder. Perhaps most important to the reconstruction strategy is wedding development assistance to the effort to build the public administration of the Haitian state and an accountable system of service delivery. At the local level, development assistance must be reinforcing of and coordinated with support to state decentralization. Development assistance that misses this tie will only perpetuate the cycle of crisis and dependence.

The United States and other countries are setting aside past criticisms of widespread corruption in Haitian politics and longstanding concerns about the sustainability of direct budgetary support to provide money to the Haitian government to create jobs, deliver services, and pay its civil servants. This necessary step will need to include X-ray oversight to ensure that funds provided to the government do not inadvertently reinforce the predatory structures rampant throughout Haitian society.

Understanding how these multiple priorities intersect, both near and long term, is pivotal to a successful international effort in Haiti. Looking around Port-au-Prince, the term "reconstruction" seems inadequate to describe the rebuilding of Haiti's infrastructure as well as a functional Haitian state and society. Without accountability toward this ambitious state-building objective, donors and Haitians alike will continue to be trapped in a cycle of crisis, assessment, and response. But for many in post-quake Haiti, it is no longer just an opportunity to get state-building right, it is an imperative.

Kara C. McDonald is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and is currently on leave as the U.S. Political Counselor in Haiti. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or government.

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