It has now been one year since an earthquake ravaged Haiti, a nation that continues to struggle along the path to recovery. In fact, with streets still covered with rubble, municipal services in very short supply and a cholera epidemic that is overwhelming Haiti's limited healthcare infrastructure, it is not surprising that some Haitian people, searching for a place to lay blame, have found a target in the wealthy nations of the world. The international community has pledged $5 billion in aid, yet much of that money has not made its way into the country. From the Haitian perspective, it is hard not to see these pledges as empty PR grabs by governments that have, for decades, benefited from Haiti's dependence on them.
This is a strong and defiant people. And their anger is gaining steam. For example, there is an increasing amount of evidence that the cholera germ in Haiti, which is similar to a strain found in Asia, was introduced by United Nations soldiers from Nepal who allegedly dumped their biowaste in a tributary of the Artibonite River. If true, the introduction of cholera by U.N. troops was accidental, but it nevertheless reflects the sort of carelessness on the part of foreign agents that has bred mistrust.
Haitians feel that their voices do not matter and that they have no control over their country's future. While there have been specific grievances related to the recent presidential election, several other factors have contributed to the civil unrest that has emerged in recent weeks. For instance, bureaucracy, corruption and lack of capacity to manage inflow of goods efficiently has caused medical supplies and building materials to remain on the docks when they are desperately needed for reconstruction and to save lives. Both President Obama and former President Bill Clinton, who oversees the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, have significant sway with the Haitian government. They know that a deadly disease outbreak now threatens the population. It is critical that they lean on the appropriate Haitian officials to set up a mechanism by which critical supplies can flow more freely into the country.
To be fair, the U.S. has tried to heed its moral responsibility to Haiti. It was the U.S. military that performed most of the heavy-lifting to re-open Haiti's ports in the days following the earthquake and Congress appropriated approximately one billion dollars for Haiti's reconstruction, last March, ensuring the U.S. would be poised to fulfill its pledge. Unfortunately, Congress--despite the best intentions of some--has stumbled in providing a framework for directing this money to where it could make the biggest impact.
Hearings represent one of the key mechanisms of congressional information gathering and analysis. And they provide an official selection of the figures most important for consultation. Instead of using the numerous hearings over the past year to learn from leaders of Haiti's civil society about what is needed in their communities, such as buying goods and services locally to re-capitalize the Haitian economy, Congress took the easy route. Only important government officials, international NGO representatives and famous public figures were invited to testify.
Congress had an opportunity as early as May to pass bi-partisan legislation that included language regarding the importance of consultation with grassroots leaders and of local procurement of food and other goods and services. Despite its passage through committee in the Senate and its introduction in the House of Representatives, the bill was repeatedly held up and gutted. Congress's failure to emphasize local procurement is especially troubling since, as the Associated Press recently found, only 1.6 percent of all U.S. dollars awarded in contracts for Haiti winds up with Haitian firms. This is profoundly unjust and is a missed opportunity for building better relationships and strengthening the Haitian economy. While the financial assistance pledged by the administration and appropriated by Congress has started to trickle in, the speed by which it is moving needs to increase and it must be directed in a way that puts Haitian civil society front and center.
Because it is clear Congress will not lead on "building back better", the onus is on the administration and USAID. President Obama cannot afford to allow more red tape and indecision to prevent this money from being put to effective use. The White House and USAID should initiate discussions with leaders of Haitian civil society to identify short, intermediate and long-term priority areas. These leaders are the best equipped to mobilize society, reach the people in greatest need and restore their confidence that the world cares about their plight. If Haiti is going to "build back better" it will happen at the grassroots level in cooperation with government and large local groups. And if the administration invests in these types of broad-based partnerships, progress will follow.
We have never suffered as the people of Haiti have, thus we have no right to shrug off their frustration. Haiti is our neighbor. Because we have established a legacy there, for better or for worse, we have skin in the game. The time has come to move from patronage to partnership. Once we transform anger and suspicion to trust and friendship, we will all be better off.
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