Another article in de Groene Amsterdammer

Hulpverlening Incorporated (De Groene Amsterdammer, Dutch, PDF)

Haiti buried under aid

Haiti buried under international aid.

The ‘Bill & Hillary Show”, as the international conference ‘Towards a New Haiti’ at the UN on March 31st was called by a European sour grape diplomat, did deliver: almost 10 billion dollar — double of what had been asked for by the Haitian government.

The EU’s commitment – 1.6 billion dollar – came as a surprise. Spain was the largest donor among the European nations with 356 million dollar. The Europeans have regarded Haiti for a long time as America’s backyard and not directly of their concern. They even outbid the US, although it should be taken into account that the Americans spent already close to a billion on military security and emergency aid right after the quake.

Not only the superpowers were intent on pulling Haiti out of its underdevelopment. Even dirt-poor countries like Mali became a donor. Outlaw Venezuela committed 2 billion in aid. Brazil — a new force in its own right in the international community — will be part as well of a 23- member steering committee, representing donor countries and NGOs, that will coordinate the aid for the next two years. This “Interim Haiti Recovery Commission” will be co-chaired by Bill Clinton, in his function as the UN special envoy and Haiti’s Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.

Can we all sleep better now, dreaming of a new Haiti that will rise from the rubble as a dynamic, modernized country with a future?

You would think: all this money – of the 10 billion, 5.3 billion will be made available for the next two years — should get something done. As a comparison: U.S. Congress appropriated since 2002 over 100 billion as development aid to Iraq and Afghanistan. But Haiti is a much smaller country – smaller than Belgium and with a population of less than 9 million. And the quake did not damage most of the country. But, another comparison: the subway station on my corner of the street on Broadway was recently reopened after a major overhaul. Cost: almost one hundred million dollar. That’s one subway station! Downtown Manhattan — the 9/11 crater — is still largely a building site.

And some prickly questions remain. For starters: will the donors keep their promises? At the Haiti-conference, Ban Ki-moon, UN’s SG, promised careful monitoring of the commitments made that day. But, there are no sanctions when a donor reneges. It wouldn’t be the first time international pledges became a boulevard of broken dreams. After hurricanes hit Haiti hard in 2008, at a similar international conference in April 2009, the international community committed hundreds of millions of dollars. A majority of these pledges have not materialized. And I have not seen that the money that was collected made much of a difference. Gonaives, the sea-town that was damaged most, is still in shambles and the population is wondering where the aid money went.

Next question: who will decide how to spend the money? The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, where all the large donors will be represented, will oversee the spending of the aid. But the World Bank will be the paymaster and controller. It would have instilled more confidence if the multilateral Inter-American Development Bank would have taken on this role. More expertise in house. It was a large IADB staff that straightened the books of the Haitian government in order to get considerable debt relief from international lenders last year. And the IADB is not perceived to the same degree as the World Bank as a U.S. foreign policy instrument.

Then there is the future role of the Haitian government.

Its widely known that Haiti has become a dark hole for quite a lot of development money over the last two decades. Haiti received three times more than for example Guatemala and Nicaragua and almost the same as Colombia, five times its size and a strategic partner of the U.S. Billions gone and nothing to show for it.

The plan for the reconstruction submitted by the Haitian government – it seems to have been inspired to a large extent by economist Jeffrey Sachs — sounds sensible enough: Building the infrastructure that Haiti never had; creating new regional centers — relieving the still overpopulated capital; public education and healthcare accessible to all; boosting the languishing agriculture and supporting the subsistence farmers, etc. As hopeful as these plans are, it makes one realize how little the country had its citizens to offer even before the earthquake.

But as progressive and detailed as this proposal is, it is doubtful that the Haitian government will be allowed to steer its execution. At the Haiti-conference at the UN, all donors paid lip service to leadership by the Haitian government. But the structure that will lead the reconstruction – the international Interim Haiti Recovery Commission and World Bank – is meant to reassure the international community that the Haitian government cannot run with the money. It will leave the Haitians with very little say.

It is clear that the image of graft and corruption that Haitian governments have become associated with is on every-ones mind even today. Not fully justified. It’s true that the present government has not shown a very dynamic leadership –not after or before the earthquake — but political insiders in Haiti don’t call Preval and Bellerive corrupt. Also, there is very little acknowledgement that in the past, Haitian governments always had enablers – the foreign NGOs and foreign governments who had an interest in going along with ‘dead aid’.

The international donors, with the U.S. in the lead, have always circumvented Haitian governments and institutions. Of the official development aid given by the U.S. about 70% was paid to American companies. Less than 10% went to Haitian governmental departments.

The question is if the country can be developed by all these foreign donors if its political institutions aren’t strengthened. The conference slogan “building back better” does not mean only houses and schools but in every-ones vision it’s about restructuring an entire society. It was painful to see at the conference how the request from the Haitian government for some additional and immediate funding (350 million) was ignored. How is a government supposed to govern without money?

The big foreign NGOs are watching from the sideline. They have no intention to cooperate with or to be placed under the direction of a Haitian government. They don’t want to be regulated or taxed. And even in these extraordinary hard times they have not shown an inclination to coordinate their efforts as many are competing with each other.

The first moment at the UN conference of real interest was when president Préval lost his way in the basement and a group of Haitian journalists cornered him. They cannot get to talk with him at home and this was their chance. While Haitians outside the UN were demonstrating because they felt left out of the decision making process, Préval was asked some tough questions about his future role and the political opposition he is facing at home. The fact that a number of parliamentarians have not signed off on the new plans and have demanded full accountability of the money that the Haitian government received after the hurricanes in 2008, Préval dismissed as a minor issue. He pointed out that his party has a solid majority in both chambers and can easily overcome this hurdle. He remained vague about the possibility of elections. Préval, whose current term expires in February 2011, is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third mandate. He said it was up to the international community to organize these elections before the end of the year and to guarantee an orderly election process.

The issue of presidential elections opens a can of worms. People in Port-au-Prince are expressing their dissatisfaction with this government. Préval is held responsible for the ongoing state of misery and the scarcity of aid three months after the quake. How will this government stay in power without the support of its population while the international community is withholding it funds to govern?

One of the Haitian journalist who fired off questions to Préval commented: “That’s why we have UN and American troops here. We all know they are here to stay!”

The population is not waiting for brilliant futuristic plans (Bill Clinton: ‘Haiti will become the first wireless nation in the Caribbean’) They want a proud, independent political leadership that is committed to relieve their misery and provides shelter, food and the prospect of some work.

In the meantime, the one and only political leader that spoke their language – literally – is quietly making a come back, at least in the people’s minds. It won’t happen – that’s one thing France and the US are in agreement about. But ‘Titid’ – the nickname for ex-president Jean Bertrand Aristide who was forced into exile by American military in 2004 — is written again on every wall that still stands. Haitians will acknowledge that Aristide did not bring much improvement to the country either. But in their desperation, many are rekindling their hopes in him.

If this government cannot establish a better rapport with the population, the attempt to rebuild Port-au-Prince could become engulfed in riots. And whoever marched in the past with angry Haitians in the streets, will wish that the international community has the wisdom to prop up this government – whether it deserves it or not.

Ton Vriens
April 2, 2010

Article in De Groene Amsterdammer

Click below to download a PDF version of the original article (in Dutch) by Ton Vriens about the future of Haiti, for the Dutch publication De Groene Amsterdammer. (An English translation of the article is available in the previous post.)

Hoe verder met Haiti? De Groene Amsterdammer (PDF, Dutch)

Can Haiti rise from the rubble?

“This time around, let the Yankees stay!”

Dutch journalist and documentary filmmaker Ton Vriens witnessed the catastrophe, traveling from North to South. Back in the States he wonders if the international community has the will to build up this country — so behind in development and corrupt from top to bottom.

(a translation of a piece for Dutch weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, February 10, 2010)
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Turtle Tree Foundation is mentioned in this November 2008 issue of Haiti Health Care News. Click below to download the article as a PDF.

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The atmosphere at the senate meeting on the night of October 30th seemed more vaudeville than serious politics. News photos of the nightlong session showed senators doubling over with laughter and excitedly jumping around the microphone. At the meeting many wild accusations were made throughout the night against the female Prime Minister. The scene was reminiscent of Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians, a portrayal of Haiti as a chaotic banana republic.

But The Comedians was published in the sixties, when turmoil and instability hit almost overnight in the decolonized nations. One would almost forget thatHaiti is is not exactly a young, emerging nation, inexperienced and giddy with its newfound freedom. Haiti was one of the few colonies that liberated itself at an early stage – the one and only slave revolt in history that actually succeeded. At the time of its independence in 1804, the population did not even share a common language, as they had been shipped to the island from all over Africa. The country’s revolutionary leadership — Toussaint L’Ouverture and others — baffled the Western world with its firm hand in organizing the masses and with its clever foreign politics. Read more