Misery in Haiti is expected to worsen
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES, Miami Herald.com
Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands left homeless in 2008 when hurricane rains washed their homes away. Joblessness deepened. Malnutrition magnified. Farms failed.
Haiti's misery is expected to deepen this year as its crippled economy and the global financial crisis collide with donor fatigue and increasing frustrations about the lack of social and economic progress.
''There is Haiti fatigue, or rather Haiti impatience, that after three to four years very little has been accomplished and all of those natural catastrophes have compounded the problem,'' said Robert Fatton, a University of Virginia professor and Haiti expert. ``2009 is going to be a very difficult year in Haiti.''
The gloomy prognosis is widespread here and comes amid a global financial meltdown that has largely detracted world attention from the storms' devastation, the worst humanitarian disaster to hit Haiti in 100 years.
It also comes as the domestic focus shifts to constitutional reform and pending legislative elections. If not handled delicately, both could create a political storm with ramifications far worse than last year's hurricanes and food riots combined, analysts and diplomats say.
Since the adoption of Haiti's 1987 Constitution, the country has gone through several major political crises, most of them prompted by contested elections.
In an address to parliament Monday, President René Préval said Haiti remains at a fragile crossroad where the slightest threat could trigger instability. He stressed the need for political and national dialogue. ''Let's sit down together to do what needs to be done,'' said Préval
, who also emphasized the need for judicial reform and modernizing the country in the areas of technology and competitiveness. ``Dialogue is necessary. To build [a nation] we need to organize.''
Haiti also needs investments and development. In recent months, Préval has accused donors of not doing enough to help Haiti crawl its way out of misery, and called for fewer tanks from the United Nations peacekeeping force and more tractors. Foreign diplomats, meanwhile, say Préval and Haiti's lackluster parliament lack focus and a sense of urgency.
''The international community may be tired of Haiti, but if there is no money, you will have more people coming to'' South Florida, said Alix Loriston, former U.N. World Food Program coordinator in Gonaives.
The epicenter of the disaster, Gonaives, still lacks a clear road map for its future. There is talk of reconstruction, but the absence of a government plan about what to do -- and money to either rebuild or relocate the historical city -- has left Gonaives' 300,000 residents with few options. Many remain in shelters and on rooftops, while others have had no other choice but to return to their mud-encased homes.
The storms struck just as Haiti was beginning to show signs of progress after years of instability. Inflation was in the single digits, and 7,500 new jobs were injected into its stagnant job market after the U.S. Congress approved a textile trade bill.
Then came the fuel and food crisis, followed by a nearly five-month political impasse, the international economic meltdown and the storms. In a span of three weeks, Tropical Storm Fay, Hurricane Gustav, Tropical Storm Hanna and Hurricane Ike pounded the country, killing nearly 800, washing away livestock and millions of dollars worth of rice, corn and plantain crops.
The economy shrunk by 15 percent, and overnight, Haiti's misery and suffering went from chronic to acute.
''Haiti is at a tipping point that can go either way,'' World Bank President Robert Zoellick said during a three-day visit after the storms. ``
We have to deal with the immediate needs to deal with the social instabilities. But there is also a chance to build. So we need to work with donors to take advantage of the good parts and make sure we ameliorate the terrible difficulties people have suffered.''
But donors have been lukewarm. Less donor support this year means Haiti is running a $100 million budget deficit, officials say. And after months of emergency food distributions, WFP is preparing to end the program because a U.N. emergency aid appeal to help stave off starvation and get cash in Haitians' pockets has not raised the $108 million envisioned.
Haiti has been ''the site of too many feel-good projects draped in national flags,'' Zoellick said in a speech about the dangers of aid fatigue and the need for new approaches on development assistance. ``Too many sterile debates about which comes first -- security or development.''
Haiti supporters, however, blast the World Bank and other lenders for not moving more swiftly to cancel Haiti's $1.7 billon external debt.
Some blame the problem on too many Haiti funding appeals. Others say the problem isn't money but a government that lacks leadership and clear priorities.
''President Préval has a really tough challenge on his hands . . . trying to rebuild a democratic state that had largely collapsed under Aristide and do it within the context set by [MINUSTAH, the U.N. Stabilization Mission] in a country which historically is proudly nationalistic and shirks at this kind of intervention,'' Thomas Shannon, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, told The Miami Herald.
Shannon doesn't believe there is Haiti fatigue and dismisses criticism by some foreign diplomats here that the U.S. government, Haiti's largest single donor, is not doing enough to help the recovery.
''There is a lot going on and it's not that Haiti has slipped off anybody's screen. People are overwhelmed right now by the financial crisis,'' Shannon said. ``With that said, it's too convenient to say things aren't moving as fast as they should be because we aren't as involved as we should be.''
Shannon said the U.S. government recognizes ``how important Haiti is. We understand the devastating impact of the hurricanes and how it has affected Haiti.''
But some question the U.S. commitment. After halting deportations to Haiti for more than three months, the Bush administration resumed them last month. A week later, it denied Préval's request to allow undocumented Haitians living in the United States to remain temporarily until their storm-ravaged homeland recovers.
Meanwhile, concerns about the increased misery have donors pushing for another conference to raise funds for Haiti. But there is disagreement on the framework and the time frame.
''There is no sufficiently clear signal from the government. We are ready to go and try and mobilize more people who can mobilize more resources,'' said Joel Boutroue, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Haiti. ``They want to achieve concrete actions. We can't treat the donors conference like an auction either, lists of projects that you want to buy or not.''
Planning and External Cooperation Minister Jean-Max Bellerive says officials are tired of donors pledging money without coordinating with the government. By getting them to commit to projects, Haitian officials can better hold donors accountable.
''Surely we need money, but we need better money,'' he said.
Sometimes, the government has no idea of a program's existence. Of the 3,000 nongovernment organization's (NGOs) operating in Haiti, only 400 are registered with his office, he said. ''We don't have any problems with the NGOs, but I've always said we need to know what they are doing and with what money and where,'' says Bellerive, currently working on a law requiring more accountability by NGOs and donors.
Donors say Haiti, by its own track record, doesn't have the capacity or people power to effectively administer programs. Without NGOs, they say, Haiti would be unable to adequately respond to the crisis.
Haiti supporters respond that after Hurricane Ike, the government dipped into its meager coffers and poured $200 million into the recovery effort to clear roads and replant crops.
''The government is trying to do its best, but the question of coordination between the government and donors is key,'' said a diplomat who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. ``When you consider the ups and down that this country faces, at some point, the sympathy for Haiti may be vanishing.'' Fatton agrees that the Haitian government needs to have a clearer plan and to improve communications with its partners
. But he says the international community shares blame for Haiti's crumbling state, and calls its policies toward Haiti ``reckless.''
What both actors have done is to confront one crisis after another without having a clear idea of how to resolve any of the crises,'' he said. ``There is a problem of leadership but there is also the problem of not having enough resources.''