U.N. envoy: Haiti quake aid mission is falling behind

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 28, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Haiti's inept government, a lack of coordination by aid organizations and a history of U.S. policy failures are hampering international efforts to rebuild the quake-stricken island nation.

That was the judgment of officials who testified Thursday before a Senate committee and in a separate teleconference by relief organizations. The chaotic conditions since the quake risk an outbreak of deadly cholera, one official said.

Haiti's capital city, Port-au-Prince, was devastated by the 7.0 quake on Jan. 12. As many as 200,000 people in the country are feared dead.

Paul Farmer, the United Nations deputy special envoy to Haiti, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Thursday that there was a mismatch between relief efforts and Haiti's ability to absorb them.

"Where we are creating 4,000 jobs in cleaning rubble, we must create 40,000 jobs," Farmer said. "We must hasten our efforts to get tents, tarpaulins and latrines or composting toilets to Haiti."

Without better sanitation, he said, thousands of displaced Haitians are at risk for cholera and other diseases.

The inability of Haiti's government to respond and to speed the work of the aid organizations has its roots in years of corruption, the mushrooming of slums, deforestation and faulty U.S. policy, he said.

Farmer said the Bush administration had bypassed the Haitian government repeatedly to deliver aid and humanitarian services to the Caribbean country. The consequence was a poorly funded and inadequate public sector, he said. Over-reliance on private aid organizations also weakened the country's food security. As a result of these failed policies, the Haitian government is unable and underprepared to coordinate the relief and reconstruction efforts today, Farmer said.

"Over the past two decades, U.S. aid policies have seesawed between embargoes and efforts to bypass governments, including elected ones not to Washington's taste," he said.

Farmer said the U.N. was considering "some direct budgetary grants to get the government back on feet." He gave no specifics.

Haiti's ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph, conceded in a speech earlier this week that much remained to be done by his government. "The rebirth will take some time. Please stay with us. We will do our part," he said.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., also blamed previous Haitian governments for the present crisis. "The failures and corruption of past Haitian governments contributed greatly to the stress felt by the Haitian people before the earthquake, and the limitations of the current government constrain the prospects for recovery," Lugar said.

Farmer also took aim at aid organizations, saying they'd stripped a share of available funds from the Haitian people.

"The aid machinery currently at work in Haiti keeps too much overhead for its operations and still relies overmuch on NGOs" — nongovernmental organizations — "or contractors who do not observe the ground rules we would need to follow to build Haiti back better," he said.

Samuel Worthington, the president and CEO of InterAction, a coalition of U.S. humanitarian organizations that's raised $350 million for relief efforts in Haiti, said the situation there remained chaotic but that the degree to which the United States, the U.N. and various NGOs were coordinating was superior to the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

"We can't, in any complex situation like this, guarantee coordination," Worthington said. He said the situation should stabilize eventually, however.

Worthington also noted that overhead costs for various aid organizations ranged from 2 percent to 15 percent. He objected to using that matrix to assess the appropriateness of aid activity. "Frame of overhead costs is not the best frame to evaluate the response," he said.

The U.N. Office of the Special Envoy to Haiti has been tracking earlier pledges made for developmental work in the country. "As of yesterday we estimate that 85 percent of the pledges made last year remain undisbursed," Farmer said.

Since the quake, countries from both sides of the hemisphere have pledged around $139 million, including $100 million from the World Bank and $10 million from the U.N.

To ensure that aid makes it to the people, Farmer urged Haiti and the United States to lay down ground rules that must be followed if NGOs are to operate in the country.

The United States, too, needs to take steps besides providing aid and military support, he said. It needs to forgive debt to prevent financial strain and promote economic growth, Farmer suggested, with the aim of creating jobs, developing businesses and protecting the environment.

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