Haiti Relief Aid Comes with Sovereignty Setback Attached

Amy Lieberman
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Though foreign aid to earthquake-stricken Haiti is reaching the government at a sluggish rate, waves of assistance to international aid organizations working there continue to flow. The Haitian government has received just $90 million of the $5.3 billion promised by the March U.N. donor conference for the first 18 months post-earthquake, according to Alice Blanchet, special adviser to Haiti's Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.

By contrast, Doctors Without Borders has received donations of $112 million following the quake, while the Red Cross has brought in $468 million. Oxfam International, which is providing aid to 440,000 people, or 20 percent of the earthquake-affected population, is working with a post-earthquake budget of $90 million. With the Haitian government a regular on Transparency International's list of "Most Corrupt" countries, the aid organizations are deemed best-equipped to handle money and enable recovery. But a continued reliance on them could place Haiti on an unsustainable path -- one that circumvents the broken national government and excludes the Haitian people from rebuilding their own country. The Jan. 12 earthquake leveled 60 percent of Haitian government infrastructure and killed 20 percent of its top civil servants.

But instead of jumpstarting an influx of direct aid to a Haitian government desperate to rebuild, the destruction resulted in humanitarian aid organizations receiving an upsurge in funding from across the world. According to Julie Schindal, a media officer for Oxfam International in Haiti, donations jumped in the aftermath of the earthquake. But Schindal says that even before Jan. 12, "the Haitian government still did not provide a lot of very basic services, and international aid as a result has long bypassed the government's capacity." Melinda Miles, founder of the Haitian-based humanitarian non-governmental group Konpay, agreed that the government has not adequately provided for Haitian earthquake survivors.

Yet Miles, who has lived in Haiti for 15 years, said the government has taken ownership over some aspects of the response effort, citing its National Action Plan for Reconstruction and Development. The plan, widely criticized as vague, has been for the most part ignored, but Miles insists that there are risks involved with discounting the Haitians' own vision for development. "There are more NGOs than ever before with even more budgets, and international aid organizations creating their own reconstruction plans," she said. "They don't have native staff. Some don't have a long history of working in Haiti. And they aren't following the plans created by the Haitian government." She added that the situation threatens to undermine already weak coordination at the civil society and government levels. The recently established Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), chaired by U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Bellerive, has been flagged as the best option for coordinating civil society efforts, while also ensuring government accountability. The IHRC will approve individual aid projects in Haiti and will also track foreign commitments. But the commission has materialized slowly. It approved its first two government-led reconstruction projects in June, but still lacks a permanent executive leadership.

A June report on Haiti by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations highlighted the IHRC's potential in a country where reconstruction has largely stalled, due in part to a lack of visible government leadership. The findings could result in the diversion of the U.S. government's pending contribution of $2 billion -- slated for imminent approval and allocation over the next two years -- away from the Haitian government "that is way beyond capacity," a committee official said in a phone interview. "We need to figure out who is best in place to handle this money, and be less concerned about if it is the government or not who can get this work done," the official continued. "The problem is that there is a lot of corruption and accountability that has yet to be resolved. We want to empower the government and also spend the money in an effective way, but the Haitian government has been very weak traditionally and we are seeing that manifested today." In a New York Times op-ed that appeared on the six-month anniversary of the earthquake, Clinton and Bellerive wrote that the Haitian government has "done everything it's been asked to do by international donors to inspire confidence, maintain transparency and ensure that not one single cent is lost to corruption."

Blanchet, Bellerive's special adviser, further noted that the Haitian government is not directly handling reconstruction aid: The World Bank is overseeing the government-bound Haiti Reconstruction Fund, and is jointly monitoring the money with the Inter-American Development Bank and the U.N. Development Group. Still, the unprecedented amount of funding from individuals and foundations has been an "exceptional factor" in the Haiti emergency relief process, says Stephanie Bunker, a communications officer of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian and Affairs (OCHA). Private individuals and organizations committed 37 percent of OCHA's Haitian emergency flash appeal of $1.5 billion.

To date, $907 million has been received and allocated to U.N. agencies working directly with the Haitian government as well as with large-scale international aid organizations. That funding, separate from the money countries have otherwise pledged through the U.N., gives donors the freedom to earmark different projects they want their money to go toward -- a secure choice in their eyes, but one that could deprive the Haitian government of autonomy in making those choices.

Meanwhile, as international aid organizations continue to establish their presence and prominence in Haiti, there is a risk that Haitians will become increasingly dependent on their humanitarian services, micro-financing and cash-for-work programs as alternatives to the lack of basic resources and permanent jobs available. Just six months after the quake that killed 230,000 and injured more than 300,000 people, Haitians need all the help they can get, regardless of where it comes from. But as currently constituted, foreign assistance could come with a sovereignty setback attached, marking a steep -- if perhaps unavoidable -- price for placing Haiti on a stable reconstruction path.