Overhaul Foreign Aid to Rebuild Haiti

The international community's response was fast and effective during the emergency cause by the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti that claimed at least 230,000 lives. But the "impressive" outpouring of solidarity stalled when reconstruction began, as international and local institutions failed to measure up to the challenge.

That was the assessment of Rubem Cesar Fernandes, executive director of Viva Rio, a Brazilian NGO active in Haiti since 2004, who stressed the need to "invent, to innovate institutionally in international agencies" in order for foreign aid to function adequately and with the necessary momentum.

In a telephone interview with IPS from Port-au-Prince, Fernandes said foreign aid efforts and funds should be channelled through local and mid-level public authorities and local NGOs and companies, given the ineffectiveness of the traditional power structures.

He said there is "a disconnect in the dialogue between international and local know-how," between the traditional political leaders of this Caribbean island nation and the leaders of the international aid efforts, like former U.S. president Bill Clinton (1993-2001), who is co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC).

As a result, many locally designed plans are ignored, like the one to rebuild the centre of Port-au-Prince, which was drawn up nearly 20 years ago "with interesting city planning ideas," he lamented.

Tens of thousands of people left homeless by the 7.0 magnitude quake have no choice but to survive in "huge camps on the outskirts (of the capital), which will soon turn into enormous slums," he predicted.

Moreover, international financial institutions like the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank "are not prepared" to meet the immediate needs of 1.3 million people left homeless in cities that have been destroyed, in a country where at least two-thirds of all workers are under- or unemployed.

In addition, every project financed with reconstruction funds requires technical evaluation, at times including the "absurd" requirement of studying environmental impacts in cities that have been devastated, Fernandes stated.

He said international agencies do not have the right mechanisms in place for this kind of task, because they are geared to long-term development.

Benito Baranda, president of the Fundación América Solidaria, told IPS that the activities and performance of the NGOs have been affected by a lack of coordination, caused by "chaos in the very structure of the government, which has great difficulties coordinating policies and actions."

His NGO has been helping Haiti since 1999, and since 2003 it has been sending teams of professionals from different fields, especially doctors and nurses.

In the wake of the earthquake, it stepped up its activities, after managing to raise nearly one million dollars, and is currently engaged in a campaign against the cholera outbreak that has killed nearly 3,700 people since late October.

The uncertainty surrounding the results of the Nov. 28 elections is another major obstacle. An Organisation of American States (OAS) observer mission is recounting ballots, and a runoff election is expected in late February, although President René Préval's term is scheduled to end on Feb. 7.

Many international agencies have suspended their aid "until the new authorities take office," Baranda said. Only then will "aid for real reconstruction plans begin," he added.

The reconstruction plan agreed on at an international donors meeting last March, for which 11 billion dollars in aid were pledged, "looks good, but it will have to be accepted by the new Haitian government, and the people have to want the project," because without their approval and participation, "it would be bound to fail," Baranda said.

But "agility" is needed, said Fernandes, who is an anthropologist and historian, as well as a social activist.

The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), the state farming research company, has provided important know-how for agricultural development in Haiti, but "it would do much more" if it linked up with intermediate institutions, acting like the United States, "which does not respect hierarchies," Fernandes said.

Viva Rio, the NGO that he heads, has been involved since 2007 in a programme to rehabilitate the downtown neighbourhood of Bel Air and surrounding areas, which has benefited some 130,000 residents of Port-au-Prince.

The NGO also promotes cultural and gastronomic activities, as well as dance and other arts, while generating jobs and combating violence, as it has done in several poor neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro.

Fernandes sees the continued military presence of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) as indispensable for keeping order, even though the Haitian police have significantly improved.

But that view is not shared by Ricardo Seitenfus, the Brazilian diplomat who represented the OAS in Haiti until he was removed two weeks ago after speaking out against the peacekeeping force in Haiti, a country that "is not an international threat" and is not "caught up in a civil war," as he stated in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Le Temps.

He told the newspaper that after the earthquake, he had hoped the world would understand "that it had made a mistake with Haiti." But the "same policy" was followed, and "instead of taking stock, we sent more soldiers," "turning Haitians into prisoners on their own island," added Seitenfus, a professor of international relations who specialises in Haiti.

These "golden words" express what many Haitians feel, said André Yves Cribb, a Haitian agronomist who travelled to Brazil in 1992 to earn a graduate degree, and stayed on as an EMBRAPA researcher, although he frequently visits his country.

Haiti needs "fewer soldiers and more engineers, doctors and technicians" for reconstruction, he said.

Cribb agreed with Seitenfus that his country is "paying the price of proximity to the United States." And he added that the solidarity of Cuba, which sent 1,300 doctors, has fuelled the hostility of Haiti's powerful neighbour.

But the problems are also due to Haiti's political instability and the incapacity of the current government, which "lacks dynamism and dialogue with the population," he told IPS.

Cribb cited his own case as an illustration. He tried to return to Haiti and share his experience after completing a master's degree in Brazil in 1994, but the political tension stood in his way.

Now he is married to a Brazilian woman and they have three teenagers, which makes working in Haiti even more difficult, although he said he is confident that he will be able to do so as part of EMBRAPA missions.

There are thousands of skilled and educated Haitians living abroad, because of the insecurity and lack of adequate working conditions in their home country. In Canada, for example, there are more Haitian doctors than in Port-au-Prince, Cribb pointed out.

His proposal is for the U.N. and donor countries interested in boosting development in Haiti to adopt policies to encourage the repatriation of educated Haitians, by hiring them and sending them to work in Haiti, because they have the advantage of being more familiar with the country than foreign professionals and aid workers.

In his own case, before his studies in Brazil, he accumulated 10 years of experience in the Agriculture Ministry of Haiti, working for rural development around the country.

Under the present conditions, he is sceptical that his country is taking full advantage of the agricultural expertise offered by Brazil, especially through EMBRAPA, which has already sent several missions to his home country, the poorest in the Americas.

[Source: By Mario Osava, IPS, Río de Janeiro, 10Jan11]

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