Sean Penn tells Congress: Haiti needs urgent aid

WASHINGTON — Aid experts — and actor/activist Sean Penn, who's run a homeless encampment in Haiti for months — urged Congress on Wednesday to speed up efforts to get aid to the quake-ravaged country.

Mark Schneider, a Haiti expert and former U.S. official who coordinated the response to Hurricane Mitch in 1998, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there's been "some progress in many arenas — just not enough and not fast enough."

At the top of his list, U.S. aid for Haiti. President Barack Obama in March asked for $2.8 billion for emergency relief and reconstruction efforts, but the bill has yet to reach the floor of either chamber.

"I know there is strong congressional support for this measure and it must be passed soon," Schneider said. "Failure to have the authority to spend those resources will increasingly bind the hands . . . and send the wrong message to other donors."

A Senate finance panel last week approved the legislation as part of a larger bill that includes funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That bill is expected to meet resistance in the House, where some Democrats oppose spending for the war in Afghanistan.

The foreign relations panel next Tuesday will consider a bill that calls for spending nearly 25 percent more on Haiti than the administration has proposed. The bill, sponsored by committee chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., seeks $3.5 billion over five years and calls for a presidentially appointed senior Haiti policy coordinator.

"Our challenge now is to maintain our sense of urgency as the hours and days of rescue give way to months and years of sustained reconstruction," Kerry said.

Despite support for aid, there was still skepticism — even among aid supporters — about assisting the Haitian government.

Corker questioned whether the Haitian government should be bypassed.

"I think a lot of people are suffering as we try to pay tribute to a government that has been very ineffective," he said. "I hope we will not play games with that, but I get the sense we kind of are not addressing the reality of the situation on the ground because we want to respect a sovereign government."

Kenneth Merten, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, said that the U.S. government has been working on a long-term effort to bolster the Haitian government and that Haitian President Rene Preval has proved responsive to the U.S.

"Over the past 20 years, the Haitian government has been viewed as an obstacle," Merten said. "But we realize we need to engage, to bolster their capacity to develop."

Former U.S. Agency for International Aid administrator Andrew Natsios, though, called Haiti a failed state and called on Haiti's diaspora to return and help rebuild the country.

Penn — who news reports say skipped the Cannes Film Festival to testify — mostly lauded the U.S. government for its response. However, he said there's an immediate need for increased security in the camps of displaced persons.

He said there's no electricity, and gang infiltration is on the rise.

He also questioned what he called "claims to grand programs of immunization," arguing that the hospitals in Haiti are in trouble. He told the panel of driving through the streets of Port-au-Prince with a 15-year-old who died of diphtheria because it took various agencies 14 hours to find a single dose of immunoglobulin.


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