PORT-AU-PRINCE — The deadly earthquake that leveled the 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” and break 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 reconstruction promise are hard to find. Immediate, basic, needs for bottled water, temporary shelter and medicine were the obvious priorities. But projects fundamental to the transformation out of poverty, such as permanent housing and electric plants in the heavily hit capital Port-au-Prince have not taken off.
FLAWED FROM START
Critics say the U.S. 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. Chronic political instability and lack of coordinated leadership between Haiti and the U.S. 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, “paralyzed,” while his government was mostly obliterated by the earthquake, 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 U.S. 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 towards debt relief to unburden the hemisphere’s poorest nation of repayments. But, after the loans were paid off, the government began borrowing again — $657 million so far, largely for oil imports, rather than development projects.
• Less than 12 percent of the reconstruction money sent 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 U.S. promised for rebuilding is still in the Treasury, its disbursement stymied by an understaffed U.S. 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 money is being spent, as dozens of contractors working for the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. government spent $1.3 billion on critical rescue operations, saving an untold number of lives.
Three months later, the goals shifted from rescue to what would become a $1.8 billion reconstruction package aimed at building new foundations.
“U.S. 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 have said the U.S. 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 Dimitri Nau, deputy chief of staff to Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.
When the earthquake hit, world lenders were already several years into forgiving Haiti’s substantial debts, many of which dated back to millions in loans taken out by the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, who was overthrown in 1986 and suddenly returned last year. In June 2009, seven months before the earthquake, donors wiped out $1.2 billion of the government’s debt. In January 2010, as the capital lay in ruins, it still was $828 million in the red.
In March 2010, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said canceling the debt is “one of the simplest but most important things we can do to help Haiti.”
And, to date, debt relief is the largest single item the U.S. has spent toward the rebuilding: $245 million.
But since taking office in May 2011, President Michel Martelly’s administration has borrowed $657 million, largely from Venezuela for basic fuel needs but also from Taiwan, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the International Monetary Fund and OPEC. Next year, Haiti is expected to spend close to $10 million servicing those debts, according to the IMF.
“The U.S. government cannot dictate how the government of Haiti, as a sovereign country, chooses to address its financial situation,” said USAID’s Haiti task team leader in Washington, D.C., Beth Hogan, whose office facilitated the payments. The U.S. is now providing only grants, not loans, to Haiti.
Waters now says she’s disappointed, but not surprised, that Haiti has resumed its borrowing habits.
More than half of the country’s annual $1 billion budget comes from foreign aid.
“Haiti needs grants, gifts and loans,” said Haitian official Nau.