international analysis and commentary

One year after the earthquake


A year after a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, killing an estimated 230,000 people, Haiti’s capital remains crippled, with homelessness, joblessness, political instability and the threat of infectious disease outbreaks hanging over people’s lives. Though some progress has been made, the road to recovery is long and uphill.

While the streets of Port-au-Prince appear clearer of debris (according to the US State Department, approximately 2 million cubic meters of rubble have been disposed of, out of the 11 million that originally enveloped the city), close to a million people continue living in tent camps. The International Organization for Migration puts the number of people living in camps at an all-time low of 810,000, down from a high of around 1.5 million in July. The less than sanitary conditions were partially responsible for the cholera epidemic that, since October, has killed another 3,500 people across the country.

With up to 10,000 official and unofficial NGOs active in the country, foreign aid continues to flood into Haiti, although not at the pace originally promised. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which surveyed 60 US charities in Haiti, less than 40% of the money raised since the earthquake has been spent so far.

Due to geographical proximity, a large Haitian diaspora in the United States, Haiti’s characteristic political instability, trade relations, and the fear of an invasion of Haitian immigrants, there is still significant interest in the US. Haiti and the United States are tied by a long shared history, which saw two US military occupations, continuous American meddling in Haitian affairs, and an uninterrupted influx of aid from Washington to Port-au-Prince. Post-earthquake, US involvement in the country has only increased.

“Haitians are our neighbors in the Americas, and for Americans they are family and friends,” said US President Barack Obama on January 15, 2010, three days after the earthquake. “I want the people of Haiti to know that we will do what it takes to save lives and help people get back on their feet.”

In the earthquake’s immediate aftermath, the US moved in quickly to help. The Coast Guard took charge of the heavily damaged port, the Marines and Air Force secured the crumpled airport, the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division began providing security since MINUSTAH, the long-running UN mission in Haiti, had suffered important casualties and damages, and USAID started distributing bags of rice, and the countless tarps and tents that still blanket Port-au-Prince.

The results of this remarkable relief effort have been mixed, for reasons that rest in part with the ineffectiveness of the Haitian government and, in part, with inconsistencies in US policy towards Haiti. The US government has been providing large amounts of aid, yet it uses international trade policy to compete with Haiti’s traditional sectors; it has been supporting free and fair elections but funded one marred by widespread fraud.

Aid money
Last March, international donors pledged more than $10 billion to Haiti for the year 2010. $1.15 billion of this was promised by the United States alone, the most generous commitment by a single donor.

Only just over $300 million of that money has been disbursed thus far (the Miami Herald reports that $120 million went to the reconstruction effort while another $200 million to debt forgiveness).

“The US government gets high marks for its generosity and commitment to Haiti,” says Elizabeth Ferris, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “The gap between pledges and funds for recovery is troubling, but is characteristic of most donors in most emergencies.”

Part of the problem is the appropriation process in Congress. USAID must explain how it intends to spend that money and Congress must authorize such plans. Months can go by between the time the pledge is made and the time the money can be disbursed.

Johanna Mendelson Forman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., believes that aid organizations are awash in cash and can barely absorb the money. The key will be, instead, the creation of a viable government authority in Haiti. “If they do this,” she says, “the rest of the money will flow in.”

So far, working with the Haitian government has proven difficult. “President René Preval has been completely invisible,” says Mendelson Forman, “despite attempts by everybody to involve him.” 

The still unresolved issue of the presidential election, whose first round was held on November 28th, complicates things further.

The top three vote getters according to the CEP, Haiti’s electoral commission handpicked by President Preval, were, in order, Mirlande Manigat, wife of a former President, Jude Celestin, Preval’s own man, and Michel Martelly, a musician turned politician. Riots erupted across the city when the CEP announced these results. Independent reviews of the vote claim that fraud was rampant. It appears that Jude Celestin’s support was especially overestimated.

The Organization of American States, which helped run the vote, decided to conduct a review, which needs to go to President Preval and the CEP for approval. A draft of the OAS recount, leaked to press, recommends that Martelly join Manigat in the run-off (originally scheduled for January 16 but now indefinitely postponed), while Celestin be downgraded to third place and therefore excluded.

A growing chorus of voices calls, however, for a complete nullification of this round of voting and for brand new elections, since, they say, a recount cannot be carried out given the number of false or missing ballots.

The US government has been criticized for pushing for an election that many predicted would be a sham, for footing most of the bill ($15 million out of a total of $29 million) and for supporting the OAS review instead of a full-fledged redo.

“The conditions were not ideal,” says Francois Pierre-Philip, a professor of political science at City University NY, a former government official and an adviser to former Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis in this year’s campaign. “But we did not anticipate the government’s heavy-handedness in manipulating the results.”

“I had predicted it would end up in a mess,” says Patrick Elie, an advisor in the private cabinet of President Preval and, for a time, the Defense Minister under Jean-Baptiste Aristide. “No candidate was able to rally the people, participation was low, and the vote was split among too many candidates, with no one having any legitimacy”. Elie believes that the election should have been postponed a few months to review the processes in order to maximize participation.

Given the realities on the ground, notes Brookings’ Elizabeth Ferris, another election held six months from now would likely face the same problems. “The electoral process is a mess and there are no easy answers,” she says. “Do we throw out the results and try again? Do we postpone elections and keep the Preval administration in place or do we plow ahead with a process that almost everyone thinks is deeply flawed?”

While there is no doubt that working with the current Haitian government and with the overall political process in Haiti is extremely challenging, other facets also complicate US policy towards Haiti.

Because of US laws (the 1954 Cargo Preference Act and the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act), it is estimated that between 50% and 75% of the value of all aid disbursed in Haiti by USAID goes straight back into American hands. Almost all agricultural provisions delivered to Haiti must be bought from American producers. And at least 50% of all shipments must travel on private US commercial ships.

“Most of the funds that come into Haiti don’t go to the Haitian government, but to private foreign NGOs,” adds Francois Pierre-Louis of CUNY. “They have bigger budgets than some Haitian government ministries.” According to him this weakens the government, since the best minds in Haiti don’t work for it. “If you speak foreign languages, if you are educated, you are more likely to be the director of a foreign NGO than a Haitian government worker,” Pierre-Louis says.

US law (the “Bumpers Amendment”, introduced in 1986 by then-Senator Dale Bumpers, D-AK) further prohibits American aid agencies from funding programs to plant crops that may compete with American exports on the global market.

Finally, because of international trade agreements strongly supported by Washington, Haiti is now importing some of the staple food that it had been growing domestically for most of its history. For example, Haiti used to be major producer of rice. According to the Center on Hemispheric Affairs-COHA, things began to change in the mid-nineties, when President Jean-Baptiste Aristide returned to Haiti from exile thanks to the help of the Americans (he had been sent away by a military coup only months after taking office in 1990). Before resuming his presidential mandate, Aristide agreed with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to implement a series of economic reforms. Among other things, Haitian tariffs on foreign rice were slashed from about 35% to 3%, opening the floodgates to heavily subsidized American rice. Today, Haiti is the third largest importer of American rice. About 75% of all rice consumed in Haiti comes from the United States.

At the beginning of this year, former US President Bill Clinton even apologized for the policies he pursued at the time. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on Haiti on March 10.

Beyond charity
“At the end of the day, I think aid and trade policies reinforce one another, since aid comes in the form of charity and contributes to make Haiti even more dependent,” says Patrick Elie. “The more dependent you are, the less say you have in your own destiny.” For Elie, US policy towards Haiti is not bound to change any time soon, “because with these elections, we are going to end up with a Haitian government even weaker than it is now.”

Mendelson Forman believes that America’s dedication to this country is heartfelt and will remain strong: “There was a genuinely robust response to begin with,” she says. “I think our commitment is there.”

In light of all this, it seems clear that if the US wants to carry out an effective relief and reconstruction effort, it will have to move beyond charity and focus on some of the structural problems that made Haiti, even before the earthquake, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.