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US pledge to rebuild Haiti not being met

Sunday, July 22, 2012 | 11:47 AM    

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The deadly earthquake that levelled Haiti's capital more than two years ago brought a thread of hope: a promise of renewal. With the United States taking the lead, international donors pledged billions of dollars to help the country "build back better," breaking its cycle of dependency.

But after the rubble was cleared and the dead buried, what the quake laid bare was the depth of Haiti's dysfunction. Today, the fruits of an ambitious, $1.8 billion US reconstruction promise are hard to find. Immediate basic needs for bottled water, temporary shelter and medicine were the obvious priorities. But projects fundamental to Haiti's transformation out of poverty, such as permanent housing and electric plants in the heavily hit capital of Port-au-Prince have not taken off.

Critics say the US’ effort to reconstruct Haiti was flawed from the start. While "build back better" was a comforting notion, there wasn't much of a foundation to build upon. Haiti's chronic political instability and lack of coordinated leadership between Haiti and the US meant crucial decisions about construction projects were slow to be approved. Red tape stalled those that were.

The international community's $10 billion effort was also hindered by its pledge to get approval for projects from the Haitian government. For more than a year then-President Rene Preval was, as he later described it, "paralysed," while his government was mostly obliterated, with 16,000 civil servants killed and most ministries in ruins. It wasn't until earlier this year that a fully operational government was in place to sign paperwork, adopt codes and write regulations. Other delays included challenges to contracts, underestimates of what needed to be done, and land disputes.

Until now, comprehensive details about who is receiving US funds and how they are spending them have not been released. Contracts, budgets and a 300-item spreadsheet obtained by The Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act request show:

— Of the $988 million spent so far, a quarter went toward debt relief to unburden the hemisphere's poorest nation of repayments. But after Haiti's loans were paid off, the government began borrowing again: $657 million so far, largely for oil imports rather than development projects.

— Less than 12 per cent of the reconstruction money sent to Haiti after the earthquake has gone toward energy, shelter, ports or other infrastructure. At least a third, $329 million, went to projects that were awarded before the 2010 catastrophe and had little to do with the recovery — such as HIV/AIDS programs.

— Half of the $1.8 billion the US promised for rebuilding is still in the Treasury, its disbursement stymied by an understaffed US Embassy in Port-au-Prince in the months after the quake and by a Haitian government that was barely functional for more than a year.

— Despite State Department promises to keep spending public, some members of Congress and watchdogs say they aren't getting detailed information about how the millions are being spent, as dozens of contractors working for the US government in Haiti leave a complex money trail.

"The challenges were absolutely huge and although there was a huge amount of money pledged, the structures were not there for this to be done quickly," said former US Ambassador Brian Curran. "The concept of build back better is a good one, but we were way over-optimistic about the pace we could do it."

The US Special Coordinator for Haiti Thomas C Adams, who oversees USAID spending here, says the first priority in the critical days after the quake that killed more than 300,000 was crisis management, and the US government spent $1.3 billion on critical rescue operations, saving untold lives.

Three months later, the goals shifted from rescue to what would become a $1.8 billion reconstruction package aimed at building new foundations.

"US taxpayers, in the past, have spent billions of dollars in Haiti that haven't resulted in sustainable improvement in the lives of Haitians," said Adams. "The emphasis was never on 'spend the money quickly.' The emphasis was on spending the money so that in a year or two, we could look at these projects and see that we've helped create a real base to jump-start economic development and give Haitian families and businesses the kind of opportunities they deserve."

Haitian government officials are appreciative, and said the US provides generous support for projects that impact long-term development. As for going back into debt, "Haiti needs all the assistance it can possibly get at this point," said Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe's deputy chief of staff Dimitri Nau.

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