Commentary: A watchdog is needed for Haiti aid

The Miami HeraldJanuary 18, 2010 

Here's one idea floating around the diplomatic community that should be adopted right away to prevent international aid to Haiti's earthquake victims from being squandered in a country with a history of massive corruption: Create a monitoring commission to ensure that aid gets into the proper hands.

There is a consensus among disaster relief experts that the U.S. pledge of a first disbursement of $100 million and other international pledges for Haiti's reconstruction amounted to a good first response to Tuesday's tragedy.

But in a country where the state is so weak that it can't run virtually any public services and corruption is rampant, many fear that once the story fades from the headlines, the flow of international aid will diminish, and that much of what gets to Haiti will be stolen.

According to Transparency International's world index of corruption perception, Haiti is one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 176th of 180 nations listed. And that's despite President Rene Preval's anti-graft offensive, which many international officials say has started to make a dent in the country's chronic corruption problem.

Haiti has a long history of foreign aid not producing visible results. A report last year by FRIDE, a Madrid, Spain-based think tank, stated that "foreign cooperation has contributed over $2.6 billion to Haiti since 1984, with little to show for it."

So what should be done, I asked Dante Caputo, a special advisor to Organization of American States' Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza and former head of the United Nations mission in Haiti. Caputo is among those who think that a follow-up commission should be created.

Caputo suggests that an aid follow-up and accountability commission should have three missions: check that the amount of aid sent to Haiti matches the amount that reaches victims, ensure that the goods delivered are the same as those promised and make sure that the right aid gets to the right places.

"That should be a wise thing to do in any country, but three times more so in the case of Haiti, where institutions are especially weak," Caputo told me.

The international commission would ideally send roving teams of three members each to all disaster sites to check the flow of aid and report immediately whether it is being effectively disbursed, he said.

You don't need to create a big bureaucracy to do that, he added.

Pierre Schori, a former Swedish International Cooperation minister, told me that's a good idea. The international community set up a monitoring commission when Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998 and international donors were afraid of putting their money in hands of a notoriously corrupt Nicaraguan government.

"We set up the monitoring commission in Managua, and it worked," Schori told me. "It helped convince donor countries to give more reconstruction money."

Many foreign aid experts wonder whether donors will act that quickly -- and be that generous -- with Haiti.

In the late '90s, the United States and other major donor countries were committed not to see Central America unravel after they had put so much time and money into the region's peace process. But will donor countries do the same with Haiti after the next Hollywood celebrity tragedy or international crisis pushes the Haiti drama to newspapers' ``foreign briefs'' sections, they ask.

"In terms of the initial response, what we're seeing in Haiti is a very fast and very large response," says Mark Schneider, the leading Latin America expert at the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution organization, who previously worked as a senior U.S. foreign aid official. "What I'm worried about is that the immediate response is not followed by the same kind of intense, long-term, massive reconstruction effort that we saw after Hurricane Mitch."

My opinion: Judging from what I saw in a visit to Haiti last year, the country was making its first serious effort in a long time to emerge from its ``failed state'' category and start moving ahead. Still, it was a devastated place, and will be immensely more so now, following the worst catastrophe to hit any country in the hemisphere in recent memory.

After four hurricanes pummeled Haiti in 2008, it took international donors nearly a year to get their act together. We cannot afford that to happen now. Haiti will need a monumental, long-term international aid commitment, and the best way to make that happen will be to set up a monitoring group to encourage donors from the start.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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