Purse strings in Haiti

Posted: Thursday, April 15, 2010

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently signaled a new way of thinking about Haiti when she said that its government would be key in dispersing nearly $10 billion in aid pledged at an international donors conference.

It might seem obvious to expect that Haiti's government would control Haiti's redevelopment. But Haiti's government has been corrupt and dysfunctional for a long, long time. As a result, it often has been forced to stand aside and watch as internationally backed aid projects go forward there.

Nonetheless, Clinton signaled faith. "It will be tempting to fall back on old habits - to work around the government rather than to work with them as partners ... We cannot retreat to failed strategies," she said.

Sorry, but the failed "strategy" in Haiti has been the government. Now, as Haiti sees more money than it has ever imagined - tens of billions of dollars flowing into the country in response to the devastating January earthquake - isn't it the time to let hope trump reality.

There is too much at stake - not just in life-and-death needs but in rebuilding Haiti's credibility - to hand billions to the government and hope for the best.

Last year, Transparency International ranked Haiti near the bottom of the world's nations in its efforts to control corruption. There has been some progress: the World Bank recently cited reform efforts there when it forgave some Haitian government debt. But we're talking billions of dollars ... and hundreds of thousands of Haitians who have been devastated.

The vision for Haiti's reconstruction should come from its leaders. That will give them a political stake in its success and make it tougher to blame any failures on meddling foreign interests.

But the international community will have to retain strong oversight of the funds.

That won't go over well in Haiti. Raymond Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the U.S. (and a University of Chicago alum), complained recently that Haiti has become "a republic of NGOs." It rankles Haitian leaders that foreign nations and nongovernmental organizations play such a heavy role in its development.

Are we talking a new form of colonialism? Hardly. The world can blunt that argument by creating a well-defined path to letting Haiti's government assume greater control of funds only as it meets benchmarks of transparency and competence.

A commission governing reconstruction will be led by former President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. That's a sound idea. Clinton has pushed tirelessly for many years to promote business investment in Haiti, and Haitians trust his commitment to their country. Bellerive is a common-sense technocrat with reform credentials. In the wake of the earthquake, he has appeared far more competent than embattled President Rene Preval.

Americans want this effort to succeed. They have generated more than $1 billion in private donations through text messages, organized raffles and high-profile fundraisers. The U.S. government has pledged $1.1 billion. That money, and billions more, can't go to waste.

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