By Joel Brinkley

The last time the United States Agency for International Development evaluated its mission in Haiti, it concluded that "Haiti's public institutions were too weak and ineffective to provide the level or partnership needed with USAID or other donors to promote development."

That was 12 years ago. Just over 12 days ago, Paul Weisenfeld, USAID's Haiti Task Force coordinator, told reporters that to help Haiti recover from January's disastrous earthquake "we need to strengthen government institutions so that we can work through them."

Weisenfeld spoke a few days after Haitian President Rene Preval held a lavish ceremony on the grounds of his destroyed Presidential Palace. Beaming, Preval presented special awards to some of the celebrities he had met in the months since the earthquake, including actor Sean Penn and TV reporter Anderson Cooper. All around him, conveniently just out of sight, tens of thousands of displaced Haitians lay about under torn and tattered tents that relief groups had given them soon after the quake. Now, six months later, the tents are falling apart.

But Preval announced grand new plans -- to be executed with other people's money.

"We officially want to launch the reconstruction phase to allow these people to get out from underneath the tents," he proclaimed. "It will not be easy, and it requires a lot of resources." That will spawn an orgy of thievery. It has already begun.

In the spring, for example, Viettel, a Vietnamese telecommunications company, bought a majority share of Haiti's inefficient and corruption-ridden telephone company for about $100 million. Nobody knows where all that money went. But we can guess.

Five years ago, more than 100 leaders of nations and donor agencies issued the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, after decades of unproductive work in dozens of underdeveloped nations. Their primary conclusion: "Ownership: Developing countries should set their own strategies, improve their institutions and tackle corruption." In other words, let the national government take the lead.

But Haiti has no national government, just a recalcitrant president and a collection of officials in place primarily to exact graft. In the decades before the quake, governments and donor groups spent $8 billion on aid programs for Haiti, nearly all of it wasted. Right before the earthquake, Haitians were just as poor and uneducated as ever, their government just as venal and dysfunctional.

Some officials had hoped the earthquake would change the status quo because nothing so terrible had ever happened before.

"When even the president of the country doesn't have a home, he is walking around in a daze, just like the rest of the people, you know that something has to shift if we don't want to waste another $8 billion," Dr. Helen Gayle told me in April. She's chief executive officer of CARE, the international aid organization.

That's not how it turned out. Sen. Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who is ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, issued a report two weeks ago noting that "President Preval has resisted overtures by the World Bank and other international partners to make difficult decisions." As a result, "six months after the earthquake, the re-building of Haiti is almost at a standstill because of a dearth of political will and leadership."

Aid officers rightly point out that their work in the first months of recovery averted any major outbreaks of disease, like cholera or diarrhea. That was the easy part. Now donors have pledged up to $10 billion to rebuild the state. Their goal, as former President Clinton put it early this year: "help the Haitian people realize their dream for a stronger, more secure nation." He is co-chair of a reconstruction committee that has met only once.

Clinton is a busy man, so primary responsibility falls back upon President Preval. Now, almost seven months after the earthquake, he hasn't gotten around to appointing an executive director for the reconstruction work. Could it be that he doesn't want to lose control of the money?

What's more, foreign governments are caustically noting that Preval has shown direct interest in only one group of displaced people, the residents of Champs de Mars, a squalid tent city that has grown up in front of the Presidential Palace. He is trying to clear them away.

If the world wants to help Haiti, aid officials should put aside that Paris Agreement on Aid Effectiveness. The donors should decide what to do with their money. The Haitian "government" can have no more than an advisory role, or nothing will ever change.

Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times.


Available at

The Great Gamble

At War with the Weather: Managing Large-Scale Risks in a New Era of Catastrophes


© Joel Brinkley

World - Haitian Quake Hasn't Dislodged Status Quo | Global Viewpoint